Friday, May 29, 2015

History Lesson

A FURTHER LIMITATION imposed by the Roman imperial system stems from this elegant, leisured and highly privileged lifestyle. It rested upon the massively unequal distribution of landed property: as noted earlier, less than 5 per cent of the population owned over 80 per cent, and perhaps  substantially more. And at the heart of this inequality was the Roman state itself, in that its laws both defined and protected the ownership rights of the property-owning class... Its land registration systems were the ultimate arbiter of who owned - and hence who did not own - land, and its criminal legislation rigorously defended owners against the hostile attentions of those left out in the economic cold...

A huge amount of Roman law dealt precisely with property: basic ownership, modes of exploiting it (selling, leasing tor longer or shorter terms, simple renting and  sharecropping), and its transfer between generations through marriage settlements, inheritance and special bequests. The ferocity of Roman criminal law, likewise, protected ownership: death was the main punishment for theft - certainly, for anything beyond petty pilfering. Again, we can see a resemblance here to later 'genteel societies relied on similarly unequal distributions of landed wealth in an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, when Jane Austen was writing her elegant tales of love, marriage and property transfer, you could be whipped (for theft valued at up to l0p), branded (for theft up to 4s l0p) or hanged (theft over 5 shillings). In eighteenth century London an average of twenty people were hanged each year.

The Roman state had to advance and protect the interests of these landowning classes because they were, in large measure, the same people who participated in its political structures. This didn't mean that there weren't occasional conflicts between the state and individual landowners, or even whole groups of them. Landowning families sometimes lost their estates by confiscation it they ended up on the wrong side of a political dispute, for instance. (This didn't necessarily mean that they were ruined for ever: as in the medieval world, restoring confiscated lands was a favoured way for a subsequent ruler to win a family's loyalty.) Nonetheless, as we have seen, the state relied on the administrative input of its provincial landowning classes at all levels of the governmental machine, and in particular to collect its taxes - the efficient collection of which hung on the willingness of these same landed classes to pay up.
Peter Heather; The Fall of the Roman Empire. pp. 138-140

Monday, May 25, 2015

Peak Oil Dress Rehearsal?

This is extraordinary. Remember all those dire things that were supposed to happen when Peak Oil hit? All the stuff in The Long Emrgency? Cars queuing up for miles to buy petrol, public transportation jacking up rates, cell phones not working, banks closing their doors, planes grounded for lack of fuel, supermarkets stripped bare, scalpers selling gas in jerry-cans, factories shutting down, stations going off the air, people losing their jobs, political disorder, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria...

Turns out all of it is happening...In Nigeria:
Nigeria is facing a prolonged fuel-supply crisis that is taking a severe toll on the country's economy, living conditions, and basic services, reports say.
The shortage in Africa's leading oil producer has forced an increasing number of drivers in Lagos to stop using their personal vehicles, but prices for commuters on public transport have more than doubled. Black market vendors have been selling petrol at about $0.70 per litre - almost double the official price. At Lagos domestic airport on Thursday morning, passengers were told all flights were delayed because there was no aviation fuel.

Felix Onuah, a Nigerian journalist, told Al Jazeera from Abuja on Thursday that many companies and businesses have been forced to shut down due to a dearth of supplies."There is a serious crisis. About eighty percent of petrol stations do not have fuel in the country," he said. "It has also caused a lot of hardship because the shortage has caused a sharp rise in transportation costs and other services associated with fuel."

Musa Yusuf, director-general of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told AFP news agency that "many companies have shut down because they cannot get diesel to fuel their plants". He also warned that the fuel crisis could take a major toll on employment. "Unless the situation is redressed, companies may be forced to lay off [staff]," Yusuf said.
[...]
Nigeria's severe fuel shortage has started to cause widespread disruption to everyday services, with the telecommunications and banking sectors the latest hit hard by the worsening crisis.
A major Nigerian bank announced on Monday that it would close all branches at 1pm local time, after major mobile phone networks announced over the weekend that a shortage of petroleum products may cause a disruption in services. In a statement, GT Bank said: "The current shortage of petroleum products in the country has limited our ability to supply diesel to all our branches in order to continue normal branch operations. "Due to this, we unavoidably have to close our branches nationwide at 1pm [on Monday]." 
"Things are gradually grinding to a halt in many areas of Nigeria at the moment," our correspondent said, noting that there were reports of schools and electricity networks being affected by the fuel shortage. 
Some Nigerian airlines have announced drastically cut services and some radio stations have gone off air, because they can not source diesel for their generators. 
[...] 
Nigerian airlines have grounded flights and radio stations were silenced as a months-long fuel shortage aggravated by striking oil tanker drivers worsened in Africa's biggest oil producer.Radio stations went dead on Saturday night, including Classic FM, The Beat and City FM, hit by frequent power outages and out of diesel fuel for generators.
Chaos reigned at bus stations where vehicles stood idle and at Lagos' Murtala Muhammad International Airport as one flight after another was cancelled."All flights suspended or cancelled. No fuel. Been sitting here since 6am," one customer complained on Twitter. 
Vehicles also were grounded. Normally bustling roads in Lagos, a metropolis of 20 million, were half-empty and gas stations were closed on Saturday.
 [...]
Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is on the verge of total shutdown due to a widespread and worsening scarcity of petroleum products. The scarcity, a result of strikes by fuel marketers and transporters, has intensified in the last two weeks as black market prices across the country have skyrocketed past the government-approved N87 ($0.44) per litre price.

The scarcity has resulted in a number of high profile companies shutting down or curtailing operations as radio stations, telecommunications companies and public services have all been badly affected.

MTN, Nigeria’s biggest telecommunications network with over 50 million subscribers, have warned customers to expect service cuts due to an inability to power base station across the country.
Nigeria fuel crisis takes rising economic toll (Al Jazeera)

Nigeria increasingly crippled as fuel shortage worsens (Al Jazeera)

Nigerian airlines cancel flights amid fuel crisis (Al Jazeera)

Africa’s biggest economy is shutting down for lack of fuel (Quartz)

It's not for lack of oil, though:
Nigeria produces about two million barrels of crude oil a day but despite its huge reserves, it imports much of its fuel due to a lack of refining capability - a situation blamed on corruption and mismanagement. The government's fuel-subsidy programme has also been found to be rife with corruption, including false claims and overpayments. 
In January 2012, the government tried to end the fuel subsidies, causing petrol prices to more than double. It was forced to partially reinstate them after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in violent protests that left more than a dozen dead. 
Onuah, the Abuja-based journalist, said oil and gas is normally subsidised by the state, but the government does not have the funds to pay for it anymore."Suppliers claim they have stopped distributing fuel because the outgoing government led by President Goodluck Jonathan still owes them more than $1bn," he told Al Jazeera...
An interesting glimpse into what happens to an economy when fuel runs low - everything is affected. Is it only a matter of time before it happens elsewhere?

Economics, Mathiness, and Sci-Jacking

A new schism has arisen in the economics priesthood.

Several years back, Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" - assertions of specious facts which were not exactly "true" in some universal, falsifiable sense, but felt true because they reinforced certain prevailing biases of the targeted audience. Wikipedia defines it this way:
Truthiness is a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
Now a prominent economist has accused some other economists of "mathiness," which is to say that a lot of math is used to disguise sloppy thinking and unproven assumptions. It is hiding certain assumptions not in evidence behind an impenetrable wall of equations to make yourself look smart and promote your ideas and career. It is also used to advance certain political biases in under the guise of "mathematical proof."
"In choosing to present the theory in less detail, they too may have responded to the expectations in the new equilibrium: empirical work is science; theory is entertainment. Presenting a model is like doing a card trick. Everybody knows that there will be some sleight of hand. There is no intent to deceive because no one takes it seriously. Perhaps our norms will soon be like those in professional magic; it will be impolite, perhaps even an ethical breach, to reveal how someone’s trick works."

Romer here is not saying that theory should be entertainment but instead that it has become entertainment. This is the notion of mathiness. What researchers he cites are doing, Romer argues, is dressing up an idea they want to convey in mathematics and presenting that as a logical theoretical insight...Romer’s first thesis is that mathiness is becoming more pervasive in economics...But there is a second thesis to Romer and that is that mathiness is a device being used by academics to further a political agenda rather than purely the pursuit of science...
Mathiness: A Guide for the Perplexed (Digitopoly)

Here's another good summary:
Once upon a time economists made their arguments in long, discursive, often contradictory books about pin factories and newspaper beauty contests. Verbally oriented people like me tend to extol those days, but to most modern economists they were the dark ages.

In the 1940s Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology brought enlightenment, in the form of elegant mathematical treatments of the major concepts in economics. Most of these ideas were inherently mathematical anyway, he argued in the introduction to his “Foundations of Economic Analysis,” first published in 1947, which meant that trying to express them in narrative form involved “mental gymnastics of a peculiarly depraved type.”

Samuelson’s approach gave the discipline a, well, discipline that it had previously lacked, and enabled economics to make great leaps in coherence and rigor. It also made the field incomprehensible to laypeople, but that turned out to be more a feature than a bug. Economists were seen as possessing unique scientific knowledge, and came to play increasingly prominent roles in public life in the U.S. and elsewhere. Samuelson’s economics-professor nephew even became Treasury secretary.

There are some obvious limits to this approach. In his entertaining and enlightening new book, “Misbehaving,” University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler documents case after case of “theory-induced blindness” in which economists ignored interesting and important real-world phenomena because they didn’t accord with the dominant mathematical models. 
What's Wrong With 'Mathiness' in Economics? (Bloomberg)

I've talked about how in the past, economics was once primarily institutional economics - which looked at the interaction of various social institutions to understand how the economy worked. Economics was also once called political economy - the understanding that there is nothing "natural" about markets and how they are constituted, rather it is based upon political choices; you cannot separate the workings of the economy from political decisions.

That particular approach went out of favor because of a guy named Karl Marx, who wrote extensively about how the politics and institutions of the time based around "capital" (the title of his book) were designed to reward the wealthy and screw over the poor.

What to do? Simple. Treat markets as naturally arising from of humans' inherent desire to to "truck, barter and exchange," and markets as just a reflection of human social instincts, as natural to human society as a troop to baboons, a pride to lions, or a school to fish. People were assumed to be equals making mutually-beneficial rational exchanges in a non-coercive markets headed toward equilibrium. Making certain assumptions (which are never questioned), you can describe the entire world mathematically. You can justify pretty much anything. And, more importantly, you can predict outcomes!

Washed away in this mathematical approach was any notion of political decisions, inequality, class struggle, debt, and history. You no longer needed to explain anything in terms of history, it could just be explained through extremely complicated mathematical equations that outsiders never questioned. Entry into the field became like physics - limited to math geniuses, and an jargon impenetrable to outsiders was adopted. Economists became advisers to governments rather than merely academics.

The biggest change was that once upon a time economists used to describe the economy as it was actually observed (which is what Adam Smith did). Economics was a relatively obscure discipline confined to a few "worldly philosophers."  But after the change, economists would now dictate economic management and decision making. Economics went from a relatively obscure discipline to the most popular major in American colleges today. It has indoctrinated the entire society while its inherent biases go unchallenged. Its assumptions have been internalized to such a degree that we can no longer think outside of them. It made it so that there really was no alternative.

Because of math, economists were assumed to have predictive power. Economists told governments what they could, and could not do, and usually what they could not do was anything that would help workers or redistribute income or ownership. They played up this predictive power, which is why the field was so humiliated by the economic breakdown of 2007-2008. Of course, the truth is, economists cannot predict anything.

Economics was transformed into Walrasian economics.
In 1874 and 1877 Walras published Elements of Pure Economics, a work that led him to be considered the father of the general equilibrium theory. The problem that Walras set out to solve was one presented by Cournot, that even though it could be demonstrated that prices would equate supply and demand to clear individual markets, it was unclear that an equilibrium existed for all markets simultaneously.

Walras constructed his basic theory of general equilibrium by beginning with simple equations and then increasing the complexity in the next equations. He began with a two-person bartering system, then moved on to the derivation of downward-sloping consumer demands. Next he moved on to exchanges involving multiple parties, and finally ended with credit and money.

Walras created a system of simultaneous equations in an attempt to solve Cournot's problem "(which supposedly Walras at first thought was complete merely because the number of equations equalled the number of unknowns)"
The crucial step in the argument was Walras' Law which states that any particular market must be in equilibrium, if all other markets in an economy are also in equilibrium. Walras' Law hinges on the mathematical notion that excess market demands (or, inversely, excess market supplies) must sum to zero. This means that, in an economy with n markets, it is sufficient to solve n-1 simultaneous equations for market clearing. Taking one good as the numéraire in terms of which prices are specified, the economy has n-1 prices that can be determined by the equation, so an equilibrium should exist. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A9on_Walras#General_equilibrium_theory

After Walras, all sorts of new math was added to economics - Coase theorems, Bayesian probabilities, Cobb-Douglas functions, Nash equilibriums, and so on (it is sadly ironic that Dr. Nash died in a car crash this weekend).

This good article - Mathiness is Next to Growthiness, quotes Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, who was also one of the first economists to apply the concept of entropy to economics:
     "According to the temper that has prevailed for some time now in the social sciences, but especially in economics, the contributions that deserve the highest praise are those using a heavy mathematical armamentarium; the heavier and the more esoteric, the more worthy of praise. Protests against this situation have not failed to be made sufficiently often to have deserved attention. What is more, protests of this kind were made not only by "verbal" economists, such as Thorstein Veblen and Frank H. Knight, but also by some who were well familiar with the mathematical tool, for example, Alfred Marshall, Knut Wicksell, and Lord Keynes. Knight lamented that there are many members of the economic profession who are "mathematicians first and economists afterwards." The situation since Knight’s time has become much worse. There are endeavors that now pass for the most desirable kind of economic contributions although they are just plain mathematical exercises, not only without any economic substance but also without mathematical value. Their authors are not something first and something else afterwards; they are neither mathematicians nor economists. How dangerous is the infatuation with pure mathematical symbolism is proved by the fact that voices from the circle of natural scientists have also often denounced it. ...

    The fundamental reason why we cannot do without dialectical concepts is that actuality, at least as seen by the human mind, continuously changes qualitatively. …

    The most we can expect from an arithmomorphic model is to depict pure growth, or rather pure quantitative variations of qualitatively different but self-identical elements.
Now, you can guess where I stand on this issue. Romer's critique is limited to a few specific theories, not to the profession overall. but I would contend that 'mathiness' is not confined to a few bad apples or ideas, but is the core of the entire pseudoscience of economics.

The entire profession is based on a fraud. Human behavior is inherently unpredictable. Even if you wash away all the fundamental ways in which the economy is constructed (divided between owners and workers), you still cannot predict things Economics has two things at its heart 1) Human behavior, which is inherently unpredictable, and 2.) Stuff, which is described by certain physical laws such as thermodynamics, chemistry, geology, etc. Economics studies money flows and claims that it can tell all it needs to know about society from that.

In an extraordinary article, prominent economist and blogger Noah Smith has come perilously close to admitting that the entire field is a fraud!
Economics has a lot of math. In no other subject except mathematics itself will you see so many proofs and theorems. Some branches of econ, such as game theory, could legitimately be housed in university math departments. But even in fields such as macroeconomics, which ostensibly deal with real-world phenomena, math is central to everything that economists do.
But the way math is used in macroeconomics isn't the same as in the hard sciences. This isn't something that most non-economists realize, so I think I had better explain.
In physics, if you write down an equation, you expect the variables to correspond to real things that you can measure and predict. For example, if you write down an equation for the path of a cannonball, you would expect that equation to let you know how to aim your cannon in order to actually hit something. This close correspondence between math and reality is what allowed us to land spacecraft on the moon. It also allowed engineers to build your computer, your car and most of the things you use.
Some economics is the same way, especially in microeconomics, or the study of individuals' actions -- you can predict which kind of auction will fetch the highest prices, or how many people will ride a train. But macroeconomics, which looks at the broad economy, is different. Most of the equations in the models aren’t supported by evidence.
For example, something called the consumption euler equation is at the core of almost every modern macroeconomic model. It specifies a relationship between consumption growth and interest rates. But when researchers looked at real data on consumption growth and interest rates, they found that the equation gives exactly the wrong predictions! Yet it continues to be used as the core of almost every macro model.
If you read the macro literature, you see that almost every famous, respected paper is chock full of these sort of equations that don’t match reality. This paper predicts that everyone will hold the same amount of cash. This paper predicts that people buy financial assets that only pay off if people are able to change the wage that they ask to receive. These and many other mathematical statements don't remotely correspond to observable reality, nor do they have any evidence in support of them. Yet they are thrown into big multi-equation models, and those models are then judged only on how well they fit the aggregate data (which usually isn't very well).
That whole approach would never fly in engineering. Engineering is something you expect to work. But macroeconomists often treat their models as simply ways, in the words of David Andolfatto, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, to “organize our thinking” about the world. In other words, macroeconomists use math to make their thoughts concrete, to persuade others, and to check the internal consistency of their (sometimes preposterous) ideas, but not to actually predict things in the real world.
Back to Romer’s complaint. He singles out Lucas, Prescott and a few others for having tenuous or sloppy links between mathematical elements and the real world. But from what I can see, such tenuous and sloppy links are the rule in macro fields. Romer says that I am “jaded” for saying that, and that it was bad apples like Lucas and Prescott who soured me on macroeconomic theory. Well, he’s right that I’m jaded, and he’s right that it was learning about models by Prescott that I first became jaded. Romer, you got me.
But when I looked beyond those models, to older or newer models, I found what seemed to be only a difference in degree, not in kind. Macroeconomic theory is chock full of mathiness. It’s not just Lucas and Prescott, it’s the whole scientific culture of the field.
How 'Mathiness' Made Me Jaded About Economics (Bloomberg)

And speaking of Noah Smith, he has coined a neologism of his own - "sci-jacking." This means to take some difference of opinion and claim that it is settled because of "science." He defines it this way: "[the] attempt to co-opt a field of scientific inquiry for political purposes." 
For a long time I've been annoyed by the practice of political movements trying to co-opt branches of science for their own ends. ...In social science, you have lots of implications for policy, and so you get a lot more political movements trying to hijack branches of social science. Let's call this practice "sci-jacking." (I like this term for a number of reasons.)...Economics, of course, is a prime target for sci-jackers. It deals with money, and money is what most people want out of policy. It is more directly connected to policy than anthropology or even sociology.
And once again, I contend that this describes the entire field of economics! In my response to the article, I argued that economics cannot be sci-jacked because the entire enterprise IS sci-jacking. It is an attempt to to pursue a specific political agenda under the guise of "science." In a comment to the article above, a commenter writes:
As a new economics student with a previous education in philosophy and then engineering, let me inform you that economics is a joke discipline. Your formulas often don't even have a time variable, the models are oversimplified and then assumed to take the place of reality, and your first year textbooks are childishly veiled Libertarian propaganda without even any references given to original papers.
I recently re-listened to Tom O'Brien's interview with Charles Hall, author of "Energy and the Wealth of Nations," and he said something very similar - his students who study energy and ecology with him and then go on take mainstream economics courses inevitably tell him that these courses are nothing more than propaganda based on ridiculous assumptions and fairy tales.

The best description I've yet read of the underlying hidden assumption of economics comes from numers 10 and 11 of Eric Zencey's Theses on Sustainability:
[10] THAT A DISTINCTION can usefully be drawn between wants and needs seems obvious. Mainstream economics, however, refuses to countenance such a distinction. (Marxist economics does, which, from the viewpoint of an ecologically enlightened economics, is one of the few ways in which it is distinguishable from its neoclassical alternative.) The work of Wilfred Pareto was crucial to this refusal. His contribution to economic theory marks a turning point in the evolution (some would say devolution) of nineteenth-century political economy into the highly mathematized discipline of economics as we know it today. Pareto’s novel idea: because satisfactions and pleasures are subjective — because no one among us can say with certainty, “I like ice cream more than you do” — there is no rational way to compare the degree of pleasure that different people will gain by satisfying desires. All we can do is assert that if an economic arrangement satisfies more human wants, it is objectively better than an arrangement that satisfies fewer human wants. This seems commonsensical until we unpack that caveat “all we can do.” An economic arrangement achieves Pareto Optimality if, within it, no one can be made better off (in his own estimation) without making someone else worse off (in her own estimation). Economic science, in its desire to be grounded on rational, objective principles, thus concludes that were we to take a dollar from a billionaire and give it to a starving man to buy food, we can’t know for certain that we have improved the sum total of human satisfaction in the world. For all we know, the billionaire might derive as much pleasure from the expenditure of his billionth dollar as would a starving man spending a dollar on food. All we can do — all! — is promote the growth of income; and if we care about that starving man, we must work to produce two dollars’ worth of goods where before there was only one, so that both the billionaire and the starving man can satisfy their wants.
[11] THUS WAS neoclassical economic theory, putatively value-free and scientific, made structurally dependent on a commitment to infinite economic growth, a value-laden, unscientific, demonstrably unsustainable commitment if ever there was one.
Note that Walrasian economics, mentioned above, is also value-free. Wikipedia again:
Léon Walras provides an amoral definition of economic utility...In Walras's theory of value, value is thus totally independent of the common meaning of value or utility. Production or increase of "value", in fact monetary amounts as for instance measured in profit or GNP, is independent of notions like a just or fair society or a better world. This is a fundament [sic] of modern "neoliberalism" or neoclassical economics.
Those biases, along with other ones like productivism, materialism, hedonism, and many others, are all hidden beneath the surface and buried in the math in economics' pretension to be a "pure" science. If that isn't sci-jacking, I don't know what is. As the above commenter says, it is "thinly disguised libertarian propaganda," and note that includes the entire field of economics, not just the ostensibly "libertarian "variety (which is even more ridiculous). Private ownership is superior; competition is efficient; a small state is best; markets when left alone head towards equilibrium as long as there is no "distortion" from government (i.e. protecting workers or the environment), and there should be no restrictions on accumulation by the wealthy whose wealth will inevitably "trickle-down" to the masses. There can be no gluts; monopolies are impossible; supply produces it's own demand; exchanges are always voluntary, as are work contracts; people are rational utility maximizers, employment is always unlimited. Income is determined entirely by one's marginal productivity. The planet is infinite; natural resources are provided free of charge; goods are infinitely substitutable; energy and debt are irrelevant, waste is ignored; externalities are exceptions, the list is almost endless.

Hopefully, these criticisms mean that the economics that justifies our current arrangements is starting to crack and fall away, and we will finally be able to start thinking outside the current system for better alternatives. It is very much analogous to when the absolute authority of the Catholic Church began to be questioned which led to all sorts of revolutions in human thought and social organization.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Automation/Basic Income Roundup


There's been a flurry of stories and videos about automation over the past few months, more than I can keep up with. Some of that is prompted by the release of Martin Ford's new book adding to the growing drumbeat that yes, automation is slowing job growth, and no, the amount of paid work is not infinite. In fact, sometimes I wish I were on Twitter because I came up with a tweetable that I think sums up the situation perfectly:

"There are plenty of jobs; there are not enough paychecks."

Feel free to use it if you like (credited here, please :)

We are ignoring the new machine age at our peril (The Guardian)
There will be lots of technical argument about the methodology and the algorithms used in the Oxford study, but there’s little doubt that the main thrust of the research is accurate: lots of non-routine, cognitive, white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs are going to be eliminated in the next two decades and we need to be planning for that contingency now.

We won’t, of course, for two reasons. The first is that our politicians pay no attention to anything with a time-horizon longer than the five-year electoral cycle. The second is our innate inability to handle nonlinear change. “We’ve always been able to absorb mechanisation and automation in the past” will be the response to the challenge of the technology. “Automation has always created more jobs than it destroyed.” And so on.

All of which was true in the past, when innovation was incremental and society had time to absorb and respond to the shock of the new. Combinatorial innovation is a different kettle of fish, because it feeds on itself and grows exponentially. Given that we’re bound to lose this race against the machine, isn’t it time we began thinking of how we might harness it to improve the quality of our lives, rather than merely enrich the corporations that own it?
What If Everybody Didn't Have to Work to Get Paid? (The Atlantic)

UBI Caritas (the best things in life are free) (EconoSpeak)

‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ (Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times)

Self-driving cars could be serious job-killers (Treehugger)

Video: Technology and Jobs: Should Workers Worry? (Economists View)

Robot sentences to ponder (Marginal Revolution)

The Machines Are Coming (New York Times)

Q: When automation replaces many jobs, as it surely will, how should the jobless spend their time? (Aeon Ideas)

Work makes Fritos (MaxSpeak)

Estimating the impact of robots on productivity and employment (Vox EU)

The robots aren’t threatening your job (Washington Post)

Robots vs. the Underclass (John Judis, National Journal)

US$154 billion rise of the robots planned for Pearl River Delta manufacturing (South China Morning Post)

Americans Can't Stand Their Bosses, and Bosses Admit They're Phoning it in (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Unemployment Report Shows Labor Force Drop Outs At Record High (Economic Populist)

The End of Meaningless Jobs is a Win For Us All (Reddit)

Is the internet killing middle class jobs? (The Week)

Productivity, Robots, China, Growth (Mish Shedlock)

5 white-collar jobs robots already have taken (Fortune)

"Jobs, automation, Engels’ pause and the limits of history" (EconoSpeak & FT Alphaville) Good historical article that points out something often forgotten - that the early industrial revolution actually lowered living standards and made most people worse off for almost a generation

Tip: Use Open in New Private/Incognito Window for NYTimes posts.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun Facts

The number of senior citizens in the workforce has nearly tripled since the 1970s.
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/nine-to-five-after-65/390948/

...[B]lack women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million....For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/20/upshot/missing-black-men.html

Dog bites account for $1 billion in homowner claims each year. Pit Bulls & Rottweilers alone accounted for 67% of human dog bite rated fatalities. (correspondence from home insurance company)

[B]etween 1976 and 2007 the bottom 90 percent saw their income grow by an annual rate of ¼ of 1 percent, adjusted for inflation, while the top 1 percent saw theirs grow by 4.4 percent. Put another way—and pulling forward to the most recent year of data—from 1975 to 2013, the top 10 percent of households have accrued 109 percent of all the income gained.
http://equitablegrowth.org/research/todays-big-u-s-economic-trade-off-isnt-equality-efficiency/

[In] Albuquerque, New Mexico...one in five homicides is a police killing.
http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/02/baltimore-rebellion-is-uprising-against-austerity-freddie-gray

Somewhere between 3% and 10% of all U.S. employees – about 4 to 14 million Americans – are experiencing intimidating forms of political contact at work.
http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/content/when-bosses-recruit-employees-politics-evidence-new-national-survey

Twenty years ago the holding period of shares was 4 years on average. Today it's 22 seconds.


Monday, May 18, 2015

A Reflection on Mortality

A while back I mentioned the fact that one of my coworkers was ill with cancer. She died last week Friday, about a month shy of her sixtieth birthday. She told me once that she put away the maximum amount possible in her 401K. Unfortunately, she will never see it. It makes one question the entire “be miserable until retirement and then start living when you’re 60,” mindset we’re supposed to have under capitalism. Sometimes 60 never comes.

But at least she was not miserable. She genuinely loved her job. She told me she looked forward every day to coming into work. This wasn’t bullshit either; this was genuine. Every day, even with cancer she was there desk at 6:00 AM in the morning. She worked continually through the day, never an idle moment. She worked at the same firm for 25 years. And unlike a lot of the other ultra-boring people here, at least she was interested in a variety of things, from medieval history to travel to geography (it was nice occasionally to have an intelligent conversation once and a while.)

What strikes me is that she was genuinely happier battling terminal cancer than I am in my normal state. Often times she had to cheer me up. It’s pretty awkward complaining about how much you hate your life when the person sitting next to you is literally dying.

Her story was typical of her generation. She grew up on Milwaukee’s South Side and went to our South Division High School where she as the only female in mechanical drafting class. She was reluctantly convinced by some mentors to pursue a career in architecture, which she did, eventually being grandfathered in and allowed to sit for the exam mid-career and without a degree.

But really, in the end, the profession sort of left her behind. The office became much more corporate and she did not have the pedigree that today's corporations are after. AutoCAD replaced her hand drafting and lettering  (which I’m told was exquisite). She struggled a bit with Revit and BIM, which we now use for production. But she hung on through it all, through all the changes in the profession, even as she stagnated in the corporate hierarchy and was left unappreciated except for her dedication and personality. Yet despite this, she was still able to supervise contract document work on large hospitals around the country.

She grew up in a much less cruel time. It was a time when “ordinary” people could have a real career in a place like Milwaukee without family money and connections.

Not any more. Such a person could never become an architect today. Today, such people are being displaced by the footloose upper-class who move around the country (and even around the world) to occupy the slim top tier of professional/technical jobs. Our summer interns this year are all full-time graduate students from Clemson University in South Carolina. Clemson is not cheap:
Founded in 1889, Clemson University consists of Six colleges: Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Architecture, Arts and Humanities; Business and Behavioral Sciences; Engineering and Science; Health and Human Development, and Education. As of 2014, Clemson University enrolled a total of 17,260 undergraduate students for the fall semester and 4,597 graduate students and the student/faculty ratio is 16:1.The cost of in-state tuition is about $13,054 and out-of-state tuition is $30,488.US News and World Report ranks Clemson University 20th among all national public universities. (Wikipedia)
The intern who sits in my area is from Rochester, Minnesota, so the latter figure is the accurate one. I can’t even imagine being able to afford that even if I could not work, not that they would admit me in any case. Here is another biography another newly hired intern (name omitted of course):
XXX is a M.Arch and M.LA dual degree student at Washington University in St. Louis expected to graduate in the winter of 2015. He earned his bachelor degree in Material Physics before studying architecture. His professional training in aesthetics and engineering have been honed through several internships. At PTW Architects Shanghai office, he applied his knowledge in physics and successfully developed a building facade system that could produce a cloud of vapor to help the cooling of the building. At Gensler’s Chicago Office, he worked with various clients ranging from motor centers, national franchise supermarkets to national banks. Last summer XXX worked for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, where he focused on the EXPO 2017 project (DD and pre-CD).  While in school he manages the 3D Printing Lab, supervising students in 3D modeling and providing 3D printing technical support. He is a proficient user of Revit, has construction documentation and LEED project experience.
And it seems the “ordinary” salt-of the earth local I have worked with over the years are slowly being displaced with the shiny new globalized hyperachieving models. And this is happening across the board in every profession. Average is over, apparently. The old timers I worked with by-and-large were always the most knowledgeable and the most down-to-earth. Usually they had no degree and came from humble origins, like my co-worker. Times have changed. Whenever I go to one of these funerals, it feels like I am witnessing the slow dying off the white working class. They are not reproducing themselves. Their kids are struggling. As much as I hate to say it, I see an utter cluelessness on the part of the lower classes themselves about this fact. The look of their eyes is that of the cows in the feedlot – happily chewing their cud totally oblivious to the fate in store for them and their children. Call it the burden of knowing. I feel bad for them.

Chris Ryan recently talked a little bit in his past two episodes about his decision to not have children. Given that such a mode of life is essentially nonexistent here in the Midwest, I was interested to hear his reasons. I might reflect on my own reasons besides the practical (i.e. as a male I don’t have the equipment).

I could clearly see even from a young age that the lower classes were being liquidated. I could also clearly see that entry to the middle class has been totally shut down. Everything I have seen since has convinced me that this trend is not changing but accelerating (as I’ve written about over the years). That’s the “new” economy and the “new” America. You’re either in the upper class or you’re done for. And my family was definitely not in the upper class. Everyone else will have little to look forward to besides demeaning jobs, patching together enough gigs to survive another day, pinching pennies, debt serfdom, uncertain retirement, etc. Not much of a life, in other words. Since I don’t like cubicle life, and that is the only life there will be in the future, why would  I even think about creating new life even if I had the chance? Nonexistence seems preferable to being a wage-slave.

The one saving grace to my family being a complete and utter horror show is the lack of any desire to propagate it into the future. In fact, my only desire is to bring this family to a well-deserved conclusion. I myself should never have been born, but I was, and I’m here, and that’s OK. There’s nothing I can do about that besides self-termination, and I’m going to die anyway, as are we all. But I see no reason to continue that forward, and feel no obligation to do so given the miserable circumstances and lack of opportunity I grew up in. I don’t see anything “noble” in life for its own sake. I always believed in my heart of hearts that my parents should never have had me. Not because there is anything particularly bad about me, but because my parents were simply not the kind of people who had the circumstances and emotional maturity to do so. I never had much of a chance, really.

I also realized I was profoundly ordinary. I’m not particularly good at anything, I’m not a genius, I’m not particularly attractive, I wasn’t the head of my class, I wasn’t a super-athlete, I’m not a musician, I’m a middling artist at best. I’m not a doctor, a physicist, an engineer, a math-whiz or anything like that. There is nothing special about me, and in an age where average is over, it’s helpful to realize that being average, you have nothing to offer the brave new world we’re building. Since I haven’t really enjoyed my life at all to this point, I certainly don’t want to pass along that “gift.” I see it as more of a burden. I wish my parents had offered me the same courtesy. I think there can be no more selfish act than having children and not thinking about what kind of future those children will have. Yet sadly we see it all the time.

I also don’t tell anyone else what to do, nor to I begrudge anyone else's situation. My circumstances are unique. In fact, sometimes I wish that more people who had their shit together would have children, rather than the most fucked-up people imaginable. People tend to bring another soul into the world with no more concern than buying rims for their car, or bringing home puppies.

I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life, and a lot of misery, and I would never want to subject another living being to what I have gone through. Now on the other side of forty, things are better now, and I’ve figured out a lot of things, but that doesn’t erase the pain of all those years, and the realization of how messed up and antithetical to human happiness and well-being our society is. So many people I see going through life on auto-pilot following the script, operating on instinct and social cues – now the job, now the degree, now the house, now the wife, now the kids, now the minivan. And I look around and think that it doesn’t look so appealing to me. Just another repeat of the same.

I wish I could understand the motivation. I wish I could join the party, be a happy cubicle worker, bright and bushy-tailed at my desk at 7:30 AM commuting in from white-picket fence-ville, anesthetizing myself  in a fog of reality TV and spectator sports. It seems so much easier.

Tomorrow is my annual employee review with the suburban Midwest ultra-breadwinners.(with their “dad bods,” lol) I don’t even know what to say anymore. Now, even people like me with insufficient degrees are being forced out of the profession. It’s clear that I have no future at this firm or in the profession in general anymore. I’m sick of what I do. Should I say that? It’s clear that you need to have a certain type of personality to make in corporate America (and the Midwest “culture”on top of it). I call them "homo corpratus." The rest of us are just wasting our time. They actually wrote “Where does Chad see himself in five years?” on my review. Where indeed? Unemployed? In debt (again)? Homeless? Deceased? It just keeps getting harder and harder to give a fuck.

Life is short indeed. Some people just aren’t cut out for the way the world is now. The least we can do is recognize it and not propagate the suffering. RIP Audrey, you belong in this world a lot more than I do.

P.S. Agree or disagree - here is some food for thought:

Anybody else childfree for a morbid reason? (Reddit) I very much disagree with his characterization of reasons as "morbid."

Abortions are moral when compared to bringing a child into existence (Examiner.com)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Living in the Waste Stream

Living doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg:
Marie lives a New York middle-class life spending less than $5,000 a year. Kalish, who travels more, needs $10,000. They work, eat, have a home, but there’s no rent bill or grocery shopping. No regular salary, even. Money isn’t their currency.

Marie is a petite, black-haired French woman who looks just like the conventional fortysomething Brooklynite. But she has no job, no visa, and lives in a three-story house for free. Living in the US also comes with an additional bit of daring: she’s an illegal immigrant. For privacy reasons, she asked to be identified with her first name only.

Eight years ago Marie arrived in the US, where she decided to remain. She has been staying for five years with her friend Greg, a real estate agent. They met in upstate New York in 2010 at a permaculture internship in which Marie spent a month learning how to farm sustainably. She needed a place to stay, he had a vacant room, so she became his home keeper, cleaning, gardening and bringing dumpster-dived food in lieu of rent.

In May 2007, Marie landed at JFK airport with a Lonely Planet in her backpack. It was her first time in the US; emerging from the subway at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem made her think of Starsky and Hutch, the 1970s television show. She paid rent in cash in Harlem, working as a waiter for three years, before moving to Greg’s.

Going with the flow, Marie has now decided to go back to France. In June she will book a plane ticket and ask to be deported.

“I’m aware that being French, and not Latino for example, makes things easier,” she said. Since she will leave prior to deportation, the main consequence of her overstay will be a ban from re-entering the US for 10 years.

“It’s a one-way trip anyway,” she shrugged. “I’ll pay what it costs.”

The price of the ticket may be more than she has spent in the past several months combined: a few hundred dollars. She receives rent from a house she owns in France, but that’s money she never uses. She lives on cash from baby- and dog-sitting. The $1,000 she recently was paid for painting a house “can go a long way”. Her clothes are finds and she travels by bike, even from Crown Heights to Manhattan.
How to live a middle-class life in New York City on less than $5,000 a year (Guardian)
Imagine going grocery shopping, walking out of the store with five grocery bags, and letting one spill all over the parking lot as you leave. It sounds shocking, and yet that’s what many of us do without even realizing it. North American households waste 15-20% of all the food they buy, which is even worse than the waste produced by restaurants.

An excellent new documentary called “Just Eat It” delves into the largely unknown, yet ubiquitous, world of wasted food. A couple from Vancouver, British Columbia, embarks on a six-month challenge – to survive exclusively on discarded food, which could be anything expired or already wasted.

Jenny Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin started out with low hopes, imagining that they’d be scrambling for food scraps, but they soon realized, with mixed delight and horror, that there is far more perfectly good food out there than they could ever possibly eat. In six months, they brought home more than $20,000 worth of discarded food and only spend $200.

The food came from places such as Dumpsters, culled bins at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and food styling photo shoots. Boxes of chocolate bars, dozens of eggs, granola, yogurt, bags of frozen chicken and bacon, salad mixes, and cartons of juice are just a few examples of the perfectly edible items that ended up in their kitchen, often for unknown reasons. Once Grant found an entire Dumpster filled with containers of hummus that still had three weeks left on the best before date. He’ll never know why they were thrown out.

“Just Eat It” challenges our cultural obsession with abundance, of always having more than we need because we can have it. We live in a wealthy society that doesn’t have to eat leftovers, so we don’t; we pitch them instead. In fact, rich countries such as Canada and the United States have anywhere from 150 to 200% of the food that we actually need, according to food waste activist Tristram Stuart.
'Just Eat It' is a must-see documentary about food waste in North America (Treehugger)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Inequality in Modern Architecture

Inequality in 1315.
Buildings always reflect the society in which they are built. The pyramids of Egypt symbolized many things at once – Egypt’s obsession with the afterlife, a massive population boom of idle workers made possible through grain agriculture, the power of the Egyptian state. It was the new top-down social structure made manifest in stone. Roman Civic buildings such as basilicas and amphitheaters symbolized the power, order, and authority of the Empire  – effective civil service and bread-and-circus distractions for a restive populace. The tallest buildings in European cities were the Gothic Cathedrals which symbolized the power of the Catholic Church in the Age of Faith. The Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower symbolized the age of engineering and iron industrialism.

Recently, the new world order that is emerging from the rotting corpse of post-war popular democracy – which I have termed Neofeudalism, -- has developed similar distinctive architectural forms.

Its form is new and yet familiar. Some of you may be familiar with the tall slender towers that dotted Italian hill towns in the fourteenth century. These were built to show off the wealth and power of patrician families, and to serve as refuges for elites in times of strife.

Now ironically, the form is being reborn in stone and concrete, but massively higher and for the same reason - to cater to the wealth and power of elites, this time the global economic oligarchy who are quickly sopping up all of humanity's collective wealth.

The form is due to the zoning laws of New York City and the height to maximize the economic returns. The towers are being built as places for the global elite to store their cash. They take advantage of complex engineering to create tall, slender towers that rise from their base to their peak, looming over the little people with their eerily ubiquitous presence. Due to their purpose as Elysiums for the one percent, they have been nicknamed Pikettyscrapers, after French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Lloyd Alter:
In an earlier post I complained that It's time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable. The point was that there are essentially no density limits in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean people are getting affordable housing. Or as I noted in a more recent post, The problems in our big cities aren't caused by restrictions on density and height, but by inequality.

What New York and other cities are getting instead are what are now called pencil towers, or skinnyscrapers, or superslenders: expensive inefficient buildings where the very wealthy buy whole floors which they often don't even use very much, or pay much taxes on...That is what we are seeing in New York and London's skylines: Pikettyscrapers, inequality made solid in marble and glass. Put them all together and instead of a skyline you have a Piketty line....super-slenders are hugely expensive to build, requiring the same stairs, elevators and emergency systems as buildings with floor plates ten times the size. The ratio of expensive exterior cladding to floor area is insanely high. On a use per capita basis, they are horrible energy hogs. As for benefits to the city, the tax income to the City will be minimal because the occupants probably won’t live there full time and won’t pay the New York City income tax...The Skyscraper dictionary notes:

Piketty Line as a skyline typology takes its meaning from Piketty’s argument that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened, which resembles the protesting essence of the term picket line, which is a boundary established by protesting workers on strike. It was coined for this dictionary.
Jargon Watch: A Piketty line full of Pikettyscrapers (Treehugger)

Perkins + Will to design Manhattan Pikettyscraper (Treehugger)
...in 1961 [New York City] revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR)...But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm.

No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square.

The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities.

Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. The developer of the Nordstrom Tower, named for the department store at its base, bought air rights from the neighbouring Art Students League, paying the venerable school (which had no plans to enlarge its handsome, 1892 building) some $30m.

Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble. As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale.
Supersizing Manhattan: New Yorkers rage against the dying of the light (The Guardian)

Inequality in 2015.
Of course, I'm fascinated by what buildings reveal about our society. See this excellent article from the New York Review of Books: Conspicuous Construction. It goes into greater depth about the reasons for these designs:
The 1990s witnessed the high-tech, telecommunications, and dot-com booms, the rise of hedge funds, the denationalization of the former Soviet Union’s natural resources, and the ascendance of China’s state-controlled capitalism. Together all these developments radically altered standards of private wealth worldwide. In the top bracket there were said to be only fifty or so extremely desirable apartment houses in Manhattan, symptomatic of the oddly persistent scarcity of premium housing in America’s financial hub. Here was a gaping hole at the high end of the market begging to be filled.

Although major fortunes have increasingly trumped religious, racial, or social biases, some co-ops require purchasers to have liquid assets equal to many multiples of an apartment’s price, which has limited sales in them to an even smaller portion of the so-called top one percent. If you buy a co-op, you buy shares in the building; if you want to leave, it is up to you to sell the shares to someone who can pass the board. Conversely, if a condominium board turns down a sale it must buy back the apartment, an effective deterrent to rejection. Thus the offspring of deposed African dictators are as welcome at condos as Social Register scions, and this ease of access has attracted shady characters who’d never get board approval at the toniest old guard citadels...

The nascent Manhattan high-rise that has everyone talking is 432 Park Avenue, the skinny eighty-nine-story spire that soars above the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Park on the former site of the Drake Hotel. Set for completion this spring, it was designed by the Uruguayan-born, New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly. Now the highest residential structure in the Western Hemisphere at 1,397 feet, 432 Park is officially New York City’s second-tallest building (after David Childs’s inevitably symbolic if architecturally negligible One World Trade Center of 2005–2014). Actually, it’s the loftiest by twenty-eight feet in habitable space, since a broadcasting mast accounts for the uppermost 408 feet of the Childs tower.

Many observers report being bemused, not to say unnerved, by the Viñoly building’s strange ubiquitousness. Visible throughout all five boroughs and as far away as Long Island and New Jersey, it startles both visitors and natives with its thin looming omnipresence and seems to follow you around like a bad conscience. One doesn’t hear much about 432 Park’s design for the good reason that artistic niceties are almost beside the point in the mathematical conjuring that brought it and its peers into being. You could even say this structure resembles a three-dimensional balance sheet more than a fully articulated architectural façade.

While [Robert A.M.] Stern clings to a passé postmodernism in much of his work, Viñoly hews closely to the reductive aesthetic of high modernism. The basically white exterior of 432 Park Avenue imparts a graphic feel accentuated by the flatness of the building’s four identical sides, as well as the bold contrast between its dark glass windows (six large square panes per story) and white concrete panels that frame the minimalist fenestration. But what most sets this oddly disturbing composition apart is the way it shoots straight upward to its full, vertiginous height.

Together with the building’s relatively small footprint—ninety-three feet square (about one quarter the length of a football field)—this uninterrupted ascent approximates the proportions of a medieval defensive tower in an Italian hill town. The configuration was made possible by city regulations that waive upper-story “wedding cake” setback requirements—instituted in 1916 to prevent overbuilt Lower Manhattan streets from turning into lightless, airless canyons—but only if a building occupies no more than one quarter of its lot. Now that prices for Manhattan residences in prime locations have gone through the roof, it hardly seems wasteful to leave 75 percent of a plot empty on a $1 billion speculation like 432 Park.

Among this new breed of towers, design elements not directly tied to profit are often downgraded or eliminated as overall costs climb. For example, Portzamparc poetically predicted that the rippling glass exterior he initially planned for One57 would evoke a cascading waterfall. As executed, however, the flat surface of the building’s variously blue, gray, and silver panes fades into a pixelated blur even from a short distance. With today’s mathematically generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Meanwhile, vast areas of former middle-class tract homes sit empty in the sun belt and Rust Belt cities are bulldozing entire swaths of the city. And:

Warren Buffett's mobile home empire preys on the poor (Center for Public Integrity)

The tragedy of the trailer park: Warren Buffett's Clayton Homes accused of preying on the poor (Treehugger)


Abandoned America: Amazing photos of a nation’s ruins (BBC)

America!! Freedom!!!

Meanwhile, speaking of inequality on the other coast, they instead prefer high-tech human biodome/terrariums to skyscrapers designed by the Galactic Empire. I finally managed to read that Bloomberg article about the Google Campus. Here are some passages that leaped out at me::
Employees will have access to exercise equipment and yoga studios on majestic balconies overlooking central courtyards, although the renderings curiously omit railings and other safety barriers. Perhaps gravity will be different under the glass as well? With cafes and stores on the ground floor, and 5,000 units of proposed housing within an easy recumbent bicycle ride, there may be no reason for workers to ever leave.

Silicon Valley is blessed with nearly idyllic year-round weather, but it’s almost devoid of landmarks, other than a mission-style bell tower on the campus of Stanford University and the utilitarian sign of a once famous electronics company, Ampex, standing along the 101 freeway in Redwood City. Generic low-rise buildings inside endless office parks are spread over the rest of the area, which is carved up by highways and dotted with parking lots, marring a landscape once rich with orchards. The leaders of high tech, it seems, were too busy changing our world to pay attention to theirs.

The Apple spaceship, scheduled to open next year, is meticulously conceived and obsessively polished down to the smallest detail, just like an Apple product. Forty-foot concave glass panes for the curved walls were specially manufactured in Germany. With a projected price tag of $5 billion, it will probably be the most expensive building in history. It will also be closed to the public.

Ingels and Heatherwick may not have the standing of Gehry or Foster, but they’ve been the subjects of exhibitions at major museums and profiles in magazines. They’re both charismatic pitchmen, adept at presenting their visions in relatable terms. Ingels’s 2009 TED Talk, 3 Warp-Speed Architecture Tales, has been viewed more than 1.9 million times. Heatherwick’s newer presentation, Building the Seed Cathedral, about his porcupine-like British pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, has 1.4 million views….Ingels talks in the lofty argot of a starchitect. Meeting in the lobby of a boutique hotel in San Francisco, he wears all black, with fashionable beard scruff and an Audemars Piguet watch on his wrist. He says things like, “I like showing there is potential for meaning in the mediocrity of the everyday. There is poetry in the practical.”

Google’s request contained some broad guidelines, many from Page himself. He wanted flexible large-span structures that dissolved the conventions of boxy buildings with four vertical walls and a roof. The new Googleplex should meld the inside and outside, bringing nature closer to employees and encouraging creativity and collaboration....Ingels’s unusual perspective also prepared him to interpret Page’s unorthodox parameters—facilitating greater collaboration, fusing the inside and outside, and leaving plenty of options to change the space around later. Ingels’s proposed solution, conceived with Heatherwick, starts with the giant canopies, which evoke the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller and the tentlike structures of German architect Frei Otto at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Ingels says that because the canopies will shield the buildings from wind, sunlight, and inclement weather, the designers can use lighter materials and take greater risks. “By making the membrane sophisticated, we can have a much more free and flexible architecture within,” he says, adding that BIG and Heatherwick are still working on ways to regulate sun exposure and reduce glare. “I doubt that any of us would have arrived at these designs if we had just been doing it alone.”

The true skeptics, really, are other designers, and they’re not hard to find. Why, for example, do you need giant glass enclosures in a place where the weather’s always perfect? “This is why hiring architects from Northern Europe maybe wasn’t the smartest thing,” says Louise Mozingo, a professor of environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. She also wonders how Google plans to clean the glass canopies when it doesn’t rain for long stretches. “There is something about this whole microclimate that they are not quite getting,” she says. [and who is going to scoop up all the dead birds on the outside of the canopy? Is there an app for that? --CH]

Others doubt the practicality of the supposedly flexible design. How, they want to know, do you configure a stable electrical system in a set of modular office units that will be hoisted and moved around by crabots? “Flexibility can become really expensive,” says David Meckel, director for research and planning at the California College of the Arts. Radcliffe says the company hasn’t worked out every problem just yet. “There may be a few things we need to scratch our heads on and figure out over time,” he says. He agrees the project should probably be considered another Google moon shot—a hugely ambitious idea that doesn’t yet have a lot of supporting details nailed down. “It redefines the way we think about the relationship between the built environment and the work that happens there, and the community and ecology it sits in,” he says.

He adds that others probably shouldn’t try to copy the grand design. “This is absolutely the right thing to do for Google. I’m not sure it’s the right thing for anybody else.”
Big and Weird: The Architectural Genius of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick

The neighbors seem less enthusiastic: Why Google’s Hometown Said “No” to a Massive New Googleplex (Slate) Perhaps there is a lesson here
...Instead, it set aside the majority of the developable office space in question for a more modest project proposed by another local tech company: LinkedIn. The move will give LinkedIn a chance to build its own new headquarters as part of a mixed-use development that will also include a movie theater, fitness club, shops, and restaurants, all open to the public. And it will leave Google with rights to less than one-fourth of the commercial square footage it had hoped to build—about enough for one of the four main buildings it had planned...LinkedIn’s plans required no special exceptions to the city’s height or density limits and were touted as more shovel-ready than Google’s far-out designs.
If you want a taste of the architect sales-pitch speak that got them the job, both of the above architects have TED talks (appropriate, no?). I'm sure you'll enjoy their "buildings" from the ski-slope power plant to the giant furry cube made from fiber optics:

Building the Seed Cathedral (Thomas Heatherwick)

The Seed Cathedral "building." No, you do not need glasses.
3 warp-speed architecture tales (Bjarke Ingels)

It's a power plant AND a ski run. Such genius!!!
These talks might remind you of something else...

Someone needs to write a book, "How Architecture Got Weird." The important thing is that your betters like it. So now rather than just being snookered by fast talkers into goofy fashions, austere apartments and blank canvasses in their art collection, the one percent will now be able to remake the entire built world that we all inhabit as abstract pieces of modernist sculpture according to their whims. Progress!

And speaking of Bjarke Ingels, what is the only form that could be even more evocative of extremes of wealth inequality than giant sculptural phallic towers? Yes, of course, the pyramids! And what do you think old Bjarke is building for the wealthy in New York City (without irony, apparently)?

So it shall be written...so it shall be done!
On yet another biting cold day, Ingels cheerfully locks his foldable bicycle to a street sign in Chelsea and slides into a diner banquette to discuss his New York debut. Having naughtily dropped a few public hints about the project before his client, Durst Fetner Residential, was quite ready for the attention, he is now simultaneously excited and cagey. The new building, he explains, will fuse two apparently incompatible types: a European-style, low-rise apartment block encircling a courtyard, and a Manhattan tower-on-a-podium, yielding something that looks like neither and behaves like both. New York is ready to embrace such a griffin, he insists: “This is the country that invented surf and turf! To put a lobster on a steak—any French chef would tell you that’s a crime.”

Ingels, who has been a visiting professor at Rice University, Harvard, and Columbia, is an unabashed Americanophile. “Europeans like to declare the U.S. dead, but it’s a convenient fiction,” he says. “So many European architects have been influenced by America, and I’m interested to discover that part of Danish culture.” So he has become a part-time New Yorker; he’s rented an apartment in Tribeca, opened an office in Chelsea, and bought a vintage Porsche for jaunts out of town...
Pyramid Scheme: Bjarke Ingels reinvents the New York apartment building (New York Magazine)

Good thing architecture is being 'reinvented,' the old architecture just wasn't working, apparently. Maybe BIG can get some tips on using slave labor from Zaha Hadid.

The original 'reinvention' of architecture for the 1%. History repeats.
How did Ingels get so BIG so fast? Simple, he came out of the star-making factory at Rem Koolhaas OMA. If you're not familiar with Koolhaas work, see below for a sample:

Click for larger size
So it kind of makes sense now, doesn't it? OMA is the launching pad for hot new European starchitects, and just about all the purveyors of giant sculpture pieces came through it at some point. OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) is not to be confused with the band called OMC, who sang the song that goes through my head whenever I see a lot of modern architecture these days:


Not all New Yorkers are impressed with the new buildings. Perhaps they will agree with Xi Jinping and demand an end to 'weird buildings.'  There is a fascinating proposal to rebuild Penn Station according to the original McKim, Mead and White design that was barbarically torn down in the "progress"-mad 1960's.
The loss of the old Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead and White was a tragedy that actually became the start of the architectural preservation movement in North America. Now Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co. want to rebuild it from the original plans. According to Clem Labine in Traditional Building:
The Rebuild Penn Station plan has three major elements: (1) Reconstruct the grand spaces of the original Penn Station; (2) Create a modern transit hub that connects two subway lines, two commuter railroads, and Amtrak; (3) Redevelop the area in and around Penn Station to create a world-class urban destination – like Rockefeller Center. McKim had envisioned his splendid rail terminal as the centerpiece of a spectacular City Beautiful project – but he died before his full dream could be realized. “The time is right,” Cameron declares, “to complete McKim’s glorious urban vision.”

They project that it would be a whole lot cheaper and easier than doing a new modern building, because "architectural design development costs would be dramatically less than for a “blank slate” Modernist exercise in abstract geometry that is the current fashion." They note also that there is no fancy new engineering to be done, given that it's all been done before. And, the foundations are still there.

They don't say where you get the trades who still know how to do the stonework and the detail, but this is where it could get interesting; since all the original drawings still exist, they could be digitized and a lot of the detailed and complex traditional components could probably be 3D printed, using the newest of technologies to recreate the old.
The previous Robber Barons knew how to build public spaces.
Why not rebuild New York's Pennsylvania Station the way it was? (Treehugger)

On a lighter note:
At their national convention May 14-16, AIA members will be voting on a resolution to adopt a position statement in support of a new investigation into the collapse of “Building 7” on September 11, 2001.
American Institute of Architects to Reconsider WTC7 9/11 Collapse (Disinfo)

I've never been to the national convention, but as a full AIA member, had I known this was on the ballot I might have made the trip!

For more laughs, be sure and visit the indispensable Notes on Becoming A Famous Architect blog.

Monday, May 11, 2015

How the West Was Lost

Seen on Slate: Yes, the Drought Is Bad in California. It’s Going to Be Much, Much Worse in Arizona.

Which brought to mind this statement I head from a speech by Joel Salatin on the Extraenvironmentalist:
[1:04:08] “The food and farming system should increase the commons not decrease the commons. I call this my ‘whosoever will’ clause. In other words, could everybody do this? Is this open to everybody? What if everyone did this, what would things look like?  And this is where I go down my rabbit trail of the need for ponds if you’re going to irrigate – surface catchment ponds, back to P.A. Yeomans' Water for Every Farm – ponds rather than aquifers or public water irrigation. If we for the last seventy years had taken all the money that’s gone into Los Alamos in New Mexico, and spent it instead, using the bonanza of petroleum to carve high terrain catchments in all the valleys in New Mexico, today New Mexico would be drought-proof and flood-proof and would be an Eden. That’s the truth.”
See also John Wesley Powell's concept of "Watershed Democracy." The West could have been settled and developed in a much more sustainable fashion had his recommendations been followed:
In the Report and subsequent papers over the next dozen years, Powell argued that the homestead model of settlement that worked well in the more humid and productive forests and prairies of the central part of the country should be re-examined and restructured for the West. For the West, Powell had two revolutionary recommendations that continue to reverberate in land-use debates today.

First, because water is the key to development (and irrigation the ultimate agricultural objective), land management units should be organized around watersheds. This would require scrapping the “township and range” survey system that imposed a rigid systematic grid pattern on the land. This led to the vast checkerboard of land holdings familiar to any transcontinental airline passenger with a window seat. In its place, Powell recommended a management plan and a survey system based on watershed units.

Using watersheds as an organizing principle, the whole region would be subdivided along topographic lines, beginning with large river basins or districts, such as the Rio Grande in New Mexico, within which would be nested smaller districts, such as the San Luis Valley. Each district could be evaluated in terms of the water it might yield to support irrigation. Powell’s watershed approach was revolutionary by acknowledging that different lands within one region had different economic potential. He further asserted that the government, which was seeking to transfer lands into private hands, must perform surveys to establish the potential value of the land and make survey results known to the public.

The focus on irrigated agriculture as the economic foundation for arid lands led Powell to another revolutionary recommendation. Building and maintaining the reservoirs and canals that would feed irrigation systems required significant capital investment, while sustained maintenance of the system and the distribution of water among participants would necessitate fairly sophisticated social institutions. Based on his experiences in Mormon Utah, Powell felt that, rather than relying on individual initiative, communities should undertake development of western “watershed commonwealths.” This was a significant departure from the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy based on individual independent farmers that had helped propel westward expansion. Moreover, by placing communities at the forefront of development, industrial capitalists, who then dominated the national economy, were largely excluded. By allowing farmers to purchase 80 acres of land that could be irrigated and giving them collective stewardship over remaining range and forest lands, a new decentralized model of public land management might be forged.

Reaction to Powell’s recommendations, which took another 16 years to play out fully, was largely negative. By threatening to develop and distribute information on the economic potential of western lands, he undercut speculators who relied on settlers’ ignorance. By arguing that investment in these new lands come from within, relying heavily on community cooperation in labor and financing, he largely cut out capitalists. By suggesting that forested lands be held by the federal government, but managed by communities, he simultaneously locked out timber interests and those who might argue for a larger state or federal government role in land management. By insisting that lands be withheld from entry until they were surveyed and described, he stymied the developers who sought any sort of advantage in gaining access to the most favored lands.

Powell’s insistence on an initial survey prior to entry inadvertently suspended the Homestead and other related acts, thus denying settlers access to land. This was something that Powell did not necessarily oppose, but, by blocking entry, he alienated most popular opinion. While implementation of Powell’s recommendations would have led to a more orderly and prudent approach to development over the long run, Powell stomped on the toes of virtually all interests in the West. Not surprisingly, these interests stomped back and defeated him in the end. 
http://www.cosmosclub.org/web/journals/2000/hutchinson.html

And why are we growing everything in California, anyway? There's a Place That's Nearly Perfect for Growing Food. It's Not California. (Mother Jones) If there's a silver lining in the drought, it may be that regional economies and foodsheds might start to make as much economic sense as ecological and energy sense.