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A Political Manifesto in Two Letters

My current “editorial board” positions for this blog.

I was cleaning up some of my files today and I found an old set of emails that seem like they would be worth publishing for posterity. I’ve never done a broadly political post like this and it’s kind of scary, but I hope this correspondence serves to add to the set of moderate voices in the nation at a time when people seem unable to communicate at all.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Andrew Malone
Date: Sat, Mar 12, 2016 at 12:36 PM
Subject: WTF is going on in America?!?!
To: a friend

Dear Friend,

First, I need to preface this. I will be putting my full support behind the Libertarian Party* candidate and hopefully their nominee, Gary Johnson (former governor of New Mexico). He’s a good dude with a great heart, excellent history of governance and all round solid candidate. Our First Past the Post system is flawed and I wish it were easier for third party candidates, but for me, I will not be cowed into voting for the lesser of two evils.

*If the LP nominates anyone else, particularly John McAffee, I will not support anyone.

I think I finally was able to put my finger on why I’m more concerned about Sanders than I am about Trump.

1) Pre-Nazi Germany was facing a choice between Bolshevism and Fascism*. They came down on the side of the Fascists. If you look at the long arc of history, when faced with that kind of bullshit choice, the Germans actually chose the least of the two evils. The Bolshevick states suppressed free speech and caused economic disruption that killed, beat and starved far more people than Hitler was ever able to kill. Worse, they planted seeds that developed into countries like China (particularly bad from the 1950’s-1990’s), North Korea and Venezuela.

We live in a softer time, so I don’t think we can reasonably compare either Sanders or Trump to their logical extremes, but I do think the forces of Fascism are easier to fight out in the open than the forces of Communism. I believe both men are far more moderate than Stalin and Hitler though, so probably this won’t be an issue for at least a couple more cycles.

*I found this podcast episode from Strong Towns very helpful and a little depressing.
Strong Towns Podcast – The End of the Ponzi Scheme

2) Secondly, and this is probably the most important, while Sanders seems to have identified the right problems, I don’t trust his dogmatism. Trump is perhaps the biggest pragmatist I’ve ever seen. He might sell his own mother if he thought it would net the most profit. That’s scary, but it also means that the future is not pre-determined. I think it is far more likely that Trump would surround himself with smart bi-partisan thinkers than Sanders would. The fact that Sanders (who’s talking about the exact same topics Ron Paul was back in 2007/2011) is correctly discussing some of the right issues means that those issues are discoverable. I trust Trump to discover them more than I trust Sanders to fix them.

3) I watched a full Trump rally and a full Sanders rally.

I actually saw Trump speak back in 2011 at a wealth building conference called the Learning Annex. Listening to him speak now is almost perfectly parallel to listening to him then. His timing, pacing, humor, etc is all designed more for entertainment and engagement than it is for the truth. I suspect that his take-away from the Learning Annex events (which featured Tony Robbins, and other famous speakers) is that people don’t act on logic, they act on emotion and find logical reasons to support those actions later. The format of Trump’s speech was a traditional persuasive speech. Introduction, key points, call to action, conclusion. It had very little to do with policy for the (in my opinion) good reason that he knows he doesn’t know enough of the details to make informed statements about what he’ll do if he gets elected. If you take out all the inflammatory stuff which may or may not be inserted for the free press it generates, Trump’s actual points were mostly common sense.

  • We use our military to support the wealthiest countries in the world (KSA, Europeans, Japan) and don’t get much in return.
  • ISIS doesn’t fight fair and we shouldn’t treat them the same way we treated enemy national armies in the past.
  • The US isn’t getting a good return on our educational dollar.
  • The government wastes a lot of money and there’s room to dramatically cut costs by eliminating waste.
  • Then a humorous call to action to vote for him in the primary and a reminder that he’s a good negotiator and can fix this stuff.

Similarly, taking out all the fluff, Sanders speaks about the topics below. I’ve made comments in brackets after each statement. I will say that because he is willing to actually present his policies I find him a lot easier to disagree with. Trump refuses to be pinned down really. Considering how many times I’ve watched presidential candidates make promises they can’t possibly keep, maybe that’s not such a crazy thing, but it sure does make me nervous. Commentary on Sanders’ speech as follows:

  1. Wall street is evil, corporate America is greedy and SuperPacs (campaign finance vehicles) control the conversation. [disagree, Wall Street responds to regulation and incentive, the Federal Reserve and fractional reserve banking is evil. SuperPacs are a result of previous efforts at campaign finance reform. The only way to limit the impact of wealth on elections is to control free speech; which is a trade I’m not willing to make (and no one else should).]
  1. The corrupt campaign finance system is undermining American democracy [I don’t believe this] – thinks billionaires and superpacs are buying elections [demonstrably false, there is no systemic voter fraud where people are being prevented from voting or paid to vote a certain way a la Tammany Hall or numerous other historical examples]. Calls out Koch brothers (I know people on staff there). [but conveniently forgets to mention George Soros or Warren Buffet who support Democrats – this is a common thing with the left. They only complain about wealthy conservative voices, but naturally rarely complain about the influence of wealthy donors on their team, nor do they consider that the university system is essentially loaded with left leaning academics who attempt to train diverse political discourse out of our next generation].
  2. We have a rigged economic system. [agree, but for totally different reasons]:
    • wealth inequality discussion [but omits the much more important conversation about wealth mobility]
    • we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any (major) country on earth [extremely doubtful, in the US we define poverty as a percentage of the average national wage, so for a single person you have to earn less than $12,000/year to qualify as impoverished. Most dance instructors I know fit that description but get free travel, housing and board as part of their ‘job’. To intelligently assess this claim we should be comparing income to essential costs. Rice and beans in the US are not that much more expensive than they are in sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty in the US is not the same as poverty in Asia or Africa and it’s dishonest and reprehensible to suggest it. This article nicely summarizes my feelings on US poverty.]
    • 58% of new income goes to the top 1% [Maybe, but so what? Does it mean that the fundamental cost of survival has increased dramatically? At even moderate American income levels we can afford things most people in the developing world wouldn’t even dream of. And does wealth concentration make me less likely to be able to become a millionaire myself? So far the answer seems to be no.] 
    • Are you ready for some radical ideas? [maybe]
  3. Create an economy that works for everybody. [Ok, if we were talking about increased mobility and lower startup costs (for example reducing or eliminating trade licensing restrictions would be one thing, but that doesn’t appear to be what he has in mind.]
  4. Tell the billionaire class they cannot have it all. [meh]
  5. When the rich get richer they’re going to have to pay their “fair share” of taxes. [There aren’t enough rich people to tax in the country to pay for everything, cuts in spending will have to be made (Bernie knows this). Furthermore, it’s foolish to suggest that wealthy people won’t find new ways of tax avoidance as taxes increase.]
  6. Broken criminal justice system [agree] – discussion of stats on high US incarceration rate (2.2M people in jail). [yep, it’s a problem, it would be great if other politicians would talk about this too]
  7. Minimum wage is too low. [but of course that’s supposed to be a training wage not a ‘living wage’.] “If you work 40-50 hours per week you should not live in poverty.” [Disagree completely, you should get paid for the value you produce regardless of the number of hours you work. The idea that you should be able to earn a living based solely on hard work is literally straight out of the Soviet playbook or George Orwell’s book 1984. Flipping burgers for 40 hours isn’t necessarily a living unless you invented a great burger that everybody wants and you own the joint.]
  8. Pay equity gap; women aren’t paid the same as men – $0.79/$1.00 women/men split. – [This is tired and has been disproven over and over again. Basically the 79/100 idea is average wages of women/men and doesn’t take into account income-breaks for child rearing or disparities in career selection. Freakonomics has a great podcast on this topic.]
  9. Wants to expand social security. [Eh, expand? – No thanks. But I’m in favor of protecting it so that people can get the money out that they put in. I do think it’s unsustainable because it’s not tied in any way to improving average national lifespan. Able bodied 65 year olds should not be entitled to early retirement simply because they live in the right country. That said, we pay into the fund and I’d like to see people get everything they’ve put into it and more back. So until you can opt out, I see no way of changing the program.]
  10. Affordable healthcare. [Yes, it’s a problem. National single payer coverage won’t make it any cheaper or better though. Obamacare might be an improvement because it guarantees that you can’t be kicked off your plan for pre-existing conditions. While I’m in favor of reducing the number of exclusions sneaky insurers can use to wriggle out of payment obligations, the ACA rule change has driven costs up, not down. I frequently think that a quicker and more transparent judicial process for evaluating insurer vs. patient disputes would be a better solution to many of our concerns about insurers. Lots to talk about there.]
  11. Kids shouldn’t go $50k-$60k in debt to get a decent education. [agree, but corporate subsidies to universities aren’t the way to do it]. The nature of the world and economy has changed [disagree-ish]. People need more education. [people need effective education] We should make colleges and universities tuition-free [that’s just another way to suggest a crazy corporate subsidy which he’s against in other areas]. Debt forgiveness or dramatic student loan interest rate deductions. [I think they’re inequitable at best. Using tax dollars in this way is technically regressive. BUT admittedly I’d rather spend money here than on planes for Pakistan or Wall Street bailouts. That’s a false choice really.] Suggests that debt forgiveness or reduction would be paid for by a tax on speculative trading because Wall Street got a bail out and the people deserve one. [That’s a dumb way to pay for it. Also, while I disagree with the ethics behind a Federal Government owning shares of companies, the bailout wound up paying for itself in loan repayment, share appreciation, and dividends. Instead of further taxing or manipulating companies we should use that $64b surplus to pay down student loan debt or buy private student loan debt and offer subsidized interest rates.]
  12. Comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship. [agree]
  13. Climate change is real and is caused by human activity [agree] and it has the potential to get seriously bad [probably true]. We have to take on the fossil fuel industry and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy [true, see Elon Musk arguments here and especially here. But I’m not sure what “taking on” an industry means exactly – sounds scary]. The state of Florida should be a leader in producing solar energy [maybe, but Presidents don’t decide that]. The Koch brothers don’t want republicans to tell the truth on this [generally false, I think their stance is that it’s hard to identify the magnitude of the threat].
  14. Pro-choice [great, me too – and so is the US Supreme Court. This isn’t much of an issue these days but politicians keep bringing it up. There is an outside chance that a sea-change in the Supreme Court would open the door to a new challenge, but they’re a conservative bunch and don’t overturn precedent very often.]
  15. Universal healthcare. We’re the only major country that doesn’t do it. The Affordable Care Act has done a lot of good things, but many people are still under-insured with high deductibles and co-pays and we all pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. [agree] Meanwhile the top drug companies made $45b in profit last year. [good… and I hope they will continue to re-invest it in additional research and development or pay their shareholders the profit in dividends, I hope they DO NOT use it to lobby congress to make it harder to introduce new drugs into the market or shut certain foreign manufactures out (which of course is exactly what they will do because the Federal government holds enough of the strings that lobbying is worthwhile)]
    • “I believe that healthcare is a right.” [NO, negative rights are not rights. See Natural Rights theory. But it might be a wise and soft hearted policy prerogative if it were a well thought out system. Telling people it’s a right is stupid and dangerous. We can agree that it could be a privilege of citizenship commensurate with a nation’s ability to pay.]
  16. Sanders can beat Trump. [maybe] The US does not want a president who insults immigrants, minorities, women, etc. [agree, but they do want a president to stand up for them and make sure we’re able to be the most competitive, free, safe and prosperous nation in the world. Americans have been told the US is the best country in the world their whole lives. Shortly after WWII that wasn’t a very high bar, but since the fall of communism and a global embrace of market based economics, it’s getting harder to compete. There are a lot more great countries in the world than there were fifty years ago and Americans are beginning to wake up to that fact for better or worse.] History shows that love trumps hatred over time. [I hope so and would like to believe that too.]

Last, but not least… I know this is super long already, but you might be interested to read what I wrote to my Aunt last year when she asked me if I was worried about Chinese conspiracy to destroy America. In short, no I’m not, but I am worried about a lot of other things. The links in my response are solid and worth reading/watching if you have some more time on your hands.

-Andy

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Andrew Malone
Date: Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 2:11 PM
Subject: Re: China’s plan to destroy America ?!?!
To: Aunt V

Hi V,

I think, like all good conspiracy theorists, the author is basing his statements on kernels of truth. I don’t believe there is a malicious and intentional plot by the Chinese to destroy America and frankly if there was it would be so contrary to their own interests it would be a new level of crazy. Like Kim Jong Il crazy.

The author has three heads of claim:

  1. Attack on the US dollar – we’re doing most of this on our own and don’t seem to need much encouragement from abroad to destroy our currency. If China decided to create a gold backed (or commodities backed) currency it would be an amazing and unique development in modern history. Ever since the US was taken off the gold standard in the 70’s there isn’t a single world currency based on precious metal. Fiat currencies grant governments a lot of power to manipulate the economy and I can’t see China giving that up anytime soon. What I can imagine is that they are holding gold as an internal investment and hedge against the inflation that all the fiat currency countries are driving via their own Federal Reserve monetary policies.

Peter Schiff is worth watching on this topic:

He’s not wrong, but it’s almost impossible to get the timing right so we’ll see what happens and when.

It’s also important to remember that China holds a ton of US debt and wants to see those loans paid off. Killing your debtor is generally a bad way to collect outstanding funds.

  1. Cyber-warfare against US businesses – if China were to create a gold-backed currency, they wouldn’t need to use cyber-attacks to sink US businesses. As I mentioned above, they hold a ton of our debt, a strong Yuan (gold-backed or otherwise) would be big disadvantage to the people and organizations who own those loans.

I do think they are working on building a strong militarized hacker squad that they would be happy to use in strategic ways. No doubt it’s a risk, but I just don’t see the motivation.

  1. Space wars against US satellites – again, I think they would be wise to figure out how to shoot enemy satellites out of the sky, so if they are developing this capability (and I’m sure they’re trying) it would be useful. BUT for normal commercial satellites it wouldn’t make sense to attack because a lot of the services provided by those are shared and used by all of us. I firmly believe that the increasingly complex ties from trade and correspondence via the internet are binding all humans closer together and making war much less profitable and much less likely.

See the Slate article, The World Is Not Falling Apart by Steven Pinker.

If you ask me, the biggest threat to America is actually two-fold:

  1. Federal debasement of our currency – as discussed above by Peter Schiff. Combated by owning your home (ideally outright) and subsequently investing in property or precious metals. I don’t believe the political machine will be able to pull their heads out of their asses long enough to stop this and I do believe we’re in for a big default in my lifetime (probably yours). A default, while unpleasant, would be survivable if our towns and cities didn’t also need debt to keep operating, leading to my second threat.
  2. Economically unsustainable towns and cities – covered very well by Strong Towns – this can be personally combated by carefully selecting the neighborhood in which you live, involvement in local government and learning how to garden/embracing local food.

Summary video here:

In depth discussion here:

Outside of the town planning/financing stuff discussed above, important subsets of the unsustainable places problem are:

2a) Food Production & Security as discussed at length by Joel Salatin in his excellent book Folks, This Ain’t Normal, or here if you’d rather watch a video.

2b) Multi-generational and sustainable building practices discussed very well by Steve Mouzon at his blog and in his book. Also, it’s worth seeing the work that Hope for Architecture is doing in Clay Chapman’s excellent presentation video here. Permanent, high-quality, re-usable buildings are an excellent way to pass wealth from one generation to the next without relying on currency.

*One further sub-point I should make; I think a lot of major global problems are actually on the cusp of being solved. Functional solar energy is currently a bit expensive, but Google is about to solve the value analysis problem for early adopters and I expect it to be a mass market technology in under a decade. Elon Musk’s work to convert our transportation system to a mostly electrical standard plays a big part in making that useful. Very valuable reading on this topic is at Waitbutwhy.com here and especially here.

AND the clean water problem seems to be nearly solved as well by the inventor of the Segway (Dean Kamen). I suggest reading Popular Science’s article here. Sell your utility bonds now! This is an epic time to be alive.

Conclusion

Ironically, I think the author of your article’s call to action is pretty much spot on, but not for any reason related to international defense. His call to action pretty much lists the minimum steps we should be taking to ensure we don’t just simply fall apart USSR style.

But no, I don’t think China, or really any other countries, are actively interested in overthrowing the U.S. Most of them just want to be left alone.

-Andy

P.S. If you follow all of those links you should get a gold star.

P.P.S. One thing I noticed as I was putting these links together is what a fusion of old (pre-1930’s) and new all of these solutions are. Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns likes to remind people that we are players in literally the largest social experiment in human history and we have no idea if the land development patterns developed from the 1950’s onward will work. It’s a powerful point to remember.

Keepin’ it Wheel

Mr. Trash Wheel teaches lesson about the power of ‘loveability’

There’s a viral video that started appearing in my feed about Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. The wheel itself is a clever piece of engineering, but perhaps the even better story is how a city came to love this device and anthropomorphize it as one of their own adorable citizens.

Mr Trash Wheel removes garbage from the river

Posted by Viral Thread on Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In 2009, a Baltimore non-profit with buy-in from the city announced a goal of making the harbor swimmable by 2020. They quickly realized that no big federal, state or city infrastructure projects would be approved and built in time to get the job done so quickly. So they started looking for the next smallest step. They planted wetlands, then oyster beds, then John Kellett, a concerned local citizen invented what would become Mr. Trash Wheel.

Mr. Trash Wheel was installed in May 2014 and as public interest increased the non-profit started working with a local ad agency called What Works Studio to capitalize on the good PR. Initially the googley eyes were only added digitally. Then as a Halloween stunt towards the end of October 2015 they gave the structure real, but temporary, eyes. They were such a hit that the people petitioned the Healthy Harbor Initiative to keep them. They’ve now become permanent and Mr. Trash Wheel’s transformation from boring public infrastructure to beloved city icon seems complete.

Mr. Trash Wheel’s public persona is so powerful now that he is being used as a voice to help fund-raise for additional water cleaning wheels and harbor improvements.

The lessons are ones I love to repeat:

  1. No one is coming to save you or your community. Federal, State and Locally financed programs are too big and slow to create meaningful change until after you’re already well under way solving the problem yourself.
  2. Incrementalism is the only financially sustainable way to improve a place.
  3. We keep (and do more of) what we love. Loveable places and things get preserved and enhanced. The un-loveable is destined to be wasted no matter how well intentioned.

The Roman Domus as a Caribbean Urban Housing Solution

A two thousand year old solution to passive cooling and rainwater collection in warm climates.

I’ve been on a bit of a kick right now learning about the Roman Domus; an ancient urban housing solution from about 2000 years ago. It all started with a simple question. Why do they have a pool of water (impluvium) in the center of the living room (atrium) like that?Well, it turns out that the impluvium is a much more functional feature than I realized. It’s actually a remarkable rainwater collection, storage and home cooling device all rolled into one. If you’re looking for the best sustainability solutions, and I think we all should be, it makes a lot of sense to look to the past. To a time when fossil fuels were still locked in their original state and people had to make every day human life work without them. Once we’ve scoured the past for amazing resource saving ideas, then by all means fire up your gas oven or take a flight halfway around the world. Let’s use our resources to their highest and best purpose. 

In this post I’ll address timeless issues, like rainwater collection, greywater systems, passive cooling, sustainable finance, and suggest some modern layout improvements to the domus for use in our lives today.

In short, ancient Romans collected rainwater from their roofs, filtered it through a sand filter and stored it in a subterranean cistern for later use in home cooling and cleaning. All for free. Let’s look at how we might reap some of the same benefits from clever design today. According to this handy Reddit thread: 

Households usually collected their own rainwater from the roof to supplement aqueduct supply. The first rains would be allowed to run off the roof into a basin (impluvium) in the atrium of the house, and out through a drain into the street. Once the rain had washed the roof clean, the drain to the street was stopped-up, and another hole in the impluvium basin was opened to allow clean rainwater to fill the cistern. Usually the cistern mouth had a sediment trap on it as well, so that only clean rainwater would get into the holding tank.

Like so:

Continue reading “The Roman Domus as a Caribbean Urban Housing Solution”

New Media for Designers & Builders – Book Launch!

Social media advice for A&E practitioners.

I just wanted to take a moment to publish a quick note in support of a friend and professional idol of mine. Steve Mouzon is an exceptional presenter, writer and thinker on the subject of true sustainability. His presentation(s) and subsequent book on The Original Green has been something I refer to frequently in conversations about human-friendly and environment-friendly design.

Over the last six years or more, Steve has been learning as much as he can about the connected web and how to use it to push ideas and his architectural practice out into the national and international conversation. He has been carefully documenting this journey on his blog New Media for Designers & Builders.

Now, I’m happy to announce he has collected and collated the extensive information available for free and is offering an e-book to help you make sense of it all. It’s probably the best how-to guide I’ve seen for small & medium sized A&E industry design practices.

As a designer himself he recognizes the need to earn a living as you’re building your media strategy and gives great practical advice on how to get started and keep things moving with as little time & cost as possible. I’m sure it works because I’ve personally seen him go through the entire process.

Take a minute to go check out the website (www.nm4db.com) and judge for yourself. I can think of several under-appreciated designers, architects and engineers who could benefit from his advice.

 

Coming Apart… and how to come back together

Why mandatory national service is not the way to jamb the tribes back together.

I was just reviewing this blog and realized it’s been quite a long time since I’ve provided any new post. A lot has happened since July ’09.  Back then, I was working for the high-end fit-out contractor Conelle Construction in NYC, but by January 2010 I had finally found the position in the middle east I thought I was looking for.  The last two years have been quite a ride, and now that things have stabilized, I think I’ll start writing new posts about my experiences here.  But not just yet.  Before I get into work and life in the GCC I wanted to share an op-ed my aunt sent me recently published in the NY Times that ties in directly with my last topic on Richard Florida’s book, the Big Sort
The Great Divorce by David Brooks (1/30/12), is basically a book review for Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart (also reviewed in the WSJ).  There’s no need for me to review a review, but the argument is that American society is “bifurcating into a different social tribes, with a tenuous common cultural link linking them.”  A nice summary of the situation can be found in the article in the times:
“Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.
Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.
Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.
Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.”
Brooks then proceeds to advocate mandatory national service as a way to “jam the tribes together”.
As most of you might guess, I find this solution abhorrent for a lot of reasons.  First, all service provided by humans should be voluntary in nature, not coerced at the point of a federal or state held gun.  Second, making two culturally disparate groups work together doesn’t work.  Allowing them to live next to each other and trade as free individuals on the other hand does.  The solution to this problem is in the way we build our cities, not in the way we force people into slave labor.
From my research, the physical environment has a serious impact on how people interact with each other and how they separate themselves from others.  One of the boons of traditional cities is that within a framework of property rights law, they allow all sorts of people to live next to each other, to experience different cultures and to fluidly exchange ideas.  Suburbs make that pretty difficult.  Ironically, the widespread use of suburbs as we know them come from the central planning (top down) mentality of the 1950’s.  Most cities had some form of zoning law by the late 1920’s but used them mostly for their stated intent, controlling noxious/polluting uses, rather than demographic control.  Post civil rights act, we decided it was time to step up socio-economic segregation too.  When we build suburbs constructed only of homes all in the same price range, and limited exclusively to home-owners (renting your house is usually illegal in most HOAs) we intentionally segregate ourselves from other socio economic groups.  The policy of suburban planning has created an increasingly segregated society.  Before the 1940/50’s, you could build a house on a block in a city and could do whatever you wanted with it, now those old cities, with lively streets and spontaneous interaction are becoming so expensive that they are being accused of being the enclave of the elites. Imagine saying all of Manhattan is for the wealthy in the 1980’s when you could find hookers in Times Square and crack cocaine in Tompkins Square Park.  It’s amazing to me to think how much things have changed in only 30 years.
Rather than promote national service, we should reign in outdated zoning policy that prevents people from building what they want and living where they want.

“The Big Sort” – concepts by Richard Florida

The world isn’t flat. It’s spikey!

I just finished reading “Who’s Your City” (2008) – by Richard Florida

The important concepts are:
1) The world isn’t flat, it’s spikey
2) “The big sort” is happening now
3) The decision of where to live will increasingly impact your chances to connect to others at the top of these global spikes

Spikeyness
This is Richard Florida’s idea, supported by several maps, that there is a scene for nearly every type of economic activity. As creatives increasingly rely on innovation with other like minded or similarly interested people, cities are serving to collect and aggregate specific types of thinkers and do-ers. Some of the more obvious examples are Nashville for Music, New York City for Fashion and Finance, Los Angeles for Entertainment, San Francisco Bay Area for Technology, etc. Interestingly, each of these scenes is becoming increasing concentrated and if you show the concentrations on a map the resulting visualization is spikes of varying intensity dotting the globe. Florida refutes Thomas Friedman’s famous thesis that information and communications technology is allowing us to work from anywhere and that the world has become more egalitarian or “flatter” thus opening up opportunities to people and areas that never had access before. Florida argues that the true professionals work at the top of their spikes and are connected in ways never before imaginable to the other large spikes across the globe. These connections serve to further consolidate spikey places making participation almost impossible for those located in alternative markets.

The Big Sort
This leads to the “big sort”, as peaks and valleys develop in the economic world there will be distinct winners and losers. Those willing and able to relocate are doing so now. People without the means or THE PERSONALITY to relocate are being left behind to increasingly marginal social positions. Florida spends a great deal of time discussing the personality characteristics of various urban areas based on the concentration of specific personality types. The idea that a city has its own personality based on the types of people it draws in is a compelling theory that I think many people will anecdotally agree with. The important point here is that as relocation get’s cheaper and easier, people are clustering in like minded groups. Diversity as we know it is being undone. When people are no longer tied to place, place becomes all the more important. Living in NYC gives me an interesting perspective here. In New York, there’s a neighborhood for virtually anyone. In a way, NYC is a small replica of Richard Florida’s world. Certain neighborhoods experience the extreme clustering he describes and it is easy to see how people have begun to self select neighborhood based on personality.

Where to Live?
The premise of the book is this; Where you decide to live will impact every moment of your life in ways that it never did before. Economic and social opportunities that used to be more diffuse are clustering and altering the geo-political landscape and it will be easy to be left behind if you aren’t paying attention.

My Thoughts
I spend a lot of time thinking about place. A friend of mine is currently working for a real estate development company that intends to begin revitalizing small to medium sized downtowns. Richard Florida’s book underscores my advice to him, which is: Find a scene to locate there and push for its growth. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to construct a scene, but it may be possible to identify a burgeoning one and help it along. Rather than try to resist “the big sort” I would try to use economic jujitsu to redirect it towards a given place or try to tie nearby places into those pre-existing spikes.

Coco Lopez

On cocktail fads and sweet flaming drinks.

For those of you who don’t know; while I was starting Asgard Associates, I was also moonlighting throughout the summer working for the famous Julie Reiner at her new bar the Clover Club as a barback. If there’s a better way to learn about spirits, mixology and the bartending as one of the culinary arts I don’t know what it is. One of the things I love about Julie’s bars is that they are completely open and accessible to the public. I enjoy the secluded, speak-easy feel of the popular NYC cocktail dens too, but I appreciate the fact that anyone can stumble in and learn about fine spirits and classic mixtures. The openness of her bars are just the tip of the iceberg for what is (in New York anyway) a massive underground cocktail scene.

If you’ve been to NYC in the last couple of weeks, don’t let the rain fool you. It’s supposed to be summer in the northeast right now! So what better way to rebel against the weather than to make some tiki drinks with my good friend Gerry Corcoran, currently behind the stick at Please Don’t Tell, another wonderful, but considerably more exclusive joint.

The cocktail world is a funny place and like all scenes, this one suffers from fads too. Right now, it seems that everywhere I go there is a major push towards a dry palette. Dry and citrus-y mixes are fashionable and sweet drinks are frowned upon. When I went to see Gerry, I gave him a hint of my plans and I wasn’t too surprised to discover that I’d have to bring my own Coco Lopez. Damn-it I was committed to the idea of making some piña colada variations that rawked, so I popped into my local Mexican bodega and found a couple of cans in the back corner. Gerry and I put some pretty good drinks together that night, but the fact that PDT and most other exceptional cocktail lounges don’t keep some of the sweeter ingredients on hand is a sort of fashion related tradgedy. I suppose this phase will pass soon, then I’ll be complaining that no one has any decent bitters or some other inane ingredient. But for now if you’d like a good tiki drink, just remember to bring your own coco lopez.

For something on the drier, simple side, try a

Coconut Kallalo

2 oz Mount Gay Rum
1 oz Coco Lopez
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice

shaken w/ cubed ice and served up in a coupe glass

or our unnamed variation – please feel free to improve on this recipe and post it as a comment
*Flaming Pina Colada (for lack of a better name)
2 oz Appleton Estates Rum
1 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Coco Lopez
1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
(1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum – en fuego)

shaken with crushed ice and poured directly into a highball
garnish with a half lime turned inside out, fill with the 1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum and ignite with a match. Serve flaming.

Soul of a Courtyard

On the value of reviving lost knowledge.

In March, before I left Los Angeles, my good friend Jim Kumon gave a presentation and took me on a tour of courtyard housing in the Pasadena, CA area. Courtyard housing is a type of multi-family dwelling centered around a courtyard and is a popular historic style in the Los Angeles area. As a typology it was effectively made illegal with the advent of Euclidian zoning in the 1970’s. It has only been in the last decade or so that sophisticated developers have been able to begin building these types of housing complexes again, and as with all art forms that die, reviving them can be a bit of a trick. Things that were once taken for granted have to be laboriously rediscovered and institutional knowledge is often lost for long periods of time.

One of the best modern architecture and planning firms capable of this work is Jim’s former employer Moule & Polyzoides. In fact, the principal, Stephanos Ployzoides wrote a book on the subject well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding more about the design concepts he’s rediscovered. The most recent courtyard housing project we know of is Mission Meridian Village, located at Mission station on the Gold Line. From what Jim describes there are several critical factors to consider when designing these buildings. There are some strict rules regarding proportions based on human scale, and several compelling things to consider concerning architectural details and style. However once you get past these ideas, the final product should create a shared public space for the residents that can act as an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city.

The courtyard should be defined as unsuccessful if it is not used and enjoyed by the residents. This is the prevailing problem behind Mission Meridian, pictured above on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It is all but impossible to find someone using the outdoor space for reading, talking, grilling or any other form of play. How can this be! How can we be so successful at creating the form of the historic courtyard complexes without the soul? I believe it has to do with creating a sense of belonging or ownership and the ability to participate in the space while still expressing your right to be there. If you’ll notice from the photos, the planters nearly fill the entire courtyard. While attractive, they essentially render the space useless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, at many of the units there is no way to sit with your back to your apartment. That simple tweak would allow a resident to effectively claim his unit as his own making his presence in the space acceptable to his neighbors. Notice the benches in front of each ground floor unit in the below example, located at 410 N Euclid in Pasadena, CA.
In the example below, located at 611-17 E California Ave (Pasadena, CA), notice the inviting, shaded space. It’s easy to imagine children playing on this surface under the watchful eye of their parents and neighbors. Values for these units are well into the $600/sf range while the surrounding neighborhood is valued closer to $380/sf.
In summary, without fully considering how residents can comfortably use a space (both socially and physically) even the most beautiful spaces will fall short.

Legal Structure & Sprawl

How do home ownership incentives impact our form of development?

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis.

Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out of the debt markets (for the moment) it seems like you can’t get away from obfuscating financial commentary in every newpaper and network news station, but perhaps the best summary of what happened in the past year was done by Jonathan Jarvis above. All of this talk has lead me to start thinking about where our pro-ownership policies have and will be taking us.

Obviously, there’s been a lot of discussion about government intervention in the housing market contributing to the real estate bubble. When most people talk about this, they’re referring to the last five to ten years at most. As a result, I’ve started to re-address some old thoughts on how policy affects real estate development.

We all know transportation policy has a lot to do with it. The transition from land-grant, semi-private railroad companies to government funded, federal highways in the 1940’s helped to spur a huge shift in the way people move around the country and of course caused massive changes in land value. Farmland that was once remote suddenly became accessible to the masses. Sub-urban land that would have taken years for a traditional urban grid to grow to, now seemed close by comparison. But I’ve also begun to consider the ownership structure supporting all of this growth.

Before condominium laws existed nationally (circa 1969), it was virtually impossible to purchase individual units in a multi-family apartment building. The notable exception to this is the housing cooperative format popular on the east coast, where the buyer actually owns shares or a percentage of the building (usually as a limited stock company). This is a cumbersome financial vehicle that frequently makes real estate transactions too time consuming or difficult for the middle class. So for fourty years or more, from the creation of Fannie Mae in 1938 to the rise in popularity of the condo format in the 1980’s, urban property was considerably more difficult to own for working families. In other words, we went from 45% to 65% homeownership in the same period of time that urban dwellings were nearly impossible to finance in a conventional way.

It’s no wonder cities suffered from an exodus of residents in the 60’s and 70’s, the opportunity for ownership was literally 10 newly paved miles away. Now that the condo format is well known to the banking industry, you can have ownership in any type of building you like. Urban dwellings can be built and sold just like suburban sprawl. Is this what’s driving re-investment in our cities?

Most New Urbanists will assert that people are simply expressing a latent preference for urban living – I think it’s more complicated than that and I’m betting the incentives placed on homeownership and transportation combined with our innate preference for social living contain a more accurate description of what’s going on. Andres Duany once argued that the goal for New Urbanists is not to bring urban form to suburbs, but suburban policy to cities. Now I think I understand what he meant by that.

Car-less in California

LA isn’t a city, it’s a collection of small towns.

What an interesting two weeks it’s been. I returned from my trip to Dubai to land in Los Angeles. Considering my love for urbanism, it’s definitely not the first place I would have expected to end up. But I landed here and I’m out of money, I have family and friends here, the weather is lovely and there are more employment options in this region than most others in the country. So I might as well stay put until I come up with a plan. What I didn’t count on is the new appreciation I have for Los Angeles as a polycentric city. That is, a city with many beautiful and individually vibrant urban cores. Some of the towns here have fantastic centers!

Yes, I studied LA at the 2006 CNU, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience it as a resident. And certainly never as a car-less resident! That’s right folks… LA, no car. Give it a shot sometime, it’s not what you’d expect. In a strange way it reminds me of living in Bogen, Germany (Bavaria) [which I did for nearly a month at the tender young age of 15]. At the moment, I’m splitting time between the two respectably urban neighborhoods of Pasadena and West Hollywood. My daily needs can be met by foot or bicycle but what’s remarkable is that the transit system here (while slow) actually can get you to most places you’d want to go. The problem is that it stops running long before the bars close, making it completely impractical to leave your neighborhood to work late or socialize unless you plan on driving. In Bogen, I had a similar experience. Despite my age and inability to drive at the time, I was able to take day trips by train to Straubing or Munich, but at night was limited to the social scene exclusively within walking or bicycling distance.

As a corollary concept, and I may be wrong about this, my impression is that people here are more isolated than they are in NYC, or on the east coast in general. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I say that, but there seem to be several imperceptible social differences that scream “I’M ISOLATED!” My theory for at least one cause is this; people are trapped inside a relatively small neighborhood social scene, and their only means of escape, aside from becoming friends with the locals, is to sit alone in a car for 30-45 minutes each direction. It’s sort of like living in Lincoln, NE but instead of being surrounded by cornfields you’re surrounded by similarly sized cities. Each one has everything necessary for life, but individually they lack the depth of larger cities.

But the symptoms are what I can’t quite figure out. Is the built environment affecting people’s behavior? If so how? My buddy Demetre suggested that the Hollywood culture has something to do with it too. I can feel a certain distance in interactions here compared with the Northeast, but I haven’t figured out how to identify or name the elements yet. Any helpful comments or suggestions?