Slime palaces

An experimental apartment block in Hamburg heated by a skin of algae.

It looks ordinary enough:
However, this is as far-out a building as you’ll ever likely to see. The green coating isn’t paint, it’s algae behind glass in a thin exothermic [Update] bioreactor.
The circuit includes biogas extraction and of course the algae eat carbon dioxide, so the building - with other less ostentatious tweaks - is claimed to be completely carbon-neutral.

Hamburg is cool and wet, so buildings need heating almost all of the year. The technology will therefore never take off in Haight-Ashbury or the liberal bits of Beverly Hills. [Update: this speculation retracted below in comments] But there’s nothing to stop Barack Obama from building himself a carbon-neutral slime palace retreat in Maine or Minnesota. And how about the Governor’s mansion in Alaska?

IBA website in German, via CleanTechnica.

Traffic circles, roundabouts, rotaries

Last fall the Economist had a short feature on traffic circles that I only noticed today. I was about to riff on how wonderful they are, and how underused in most of the US, but I’m already walking back the post I had in mind.  For drivers, and people who breathe air, they are pretty much all win:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research group, estimates that converting intersections with traffic lights to roundabouts reduces all crashes by 37% and crashes that involve an injury by 75%. At traffic lights the most common accidents are faster, right-angled collisions. These crashes are eliminated with roundabouts because vehicles travel more slowly and in the same direction. The most common accident is a sideswipe, generally no more than a cosmetic annoyance.

What locals like, though, is that it is on average far quicker to traverse a series of roundabouts than a similar number of stop lights. Indeed, one national study of ten intersections that could have been turned into roundabouts found that vehicle delays would have been reduced by 62-74% (nationally saving 325,000 hours of motorists’ time annually). Moreover, because fewer vehicles had to wait for traffic lights, 235,000 gallons of fuel could have been saved [MO: with attendant criteria pollution and noise reduction].

They have three defects, though, one tractable and two not so much.  The easy one is that they reverse the convention of priorité à droite, the obligation of the car at the left of a merge to yield the right of way to the car on the right (this post assumes right-hand driving). This convention is not a problem when a minor street enters an arterial or avenue at right angles from the right (especially if it has a stop sign or a light), but the whole idea of a circle is that the circle itself and its tributaries have equivalent status and acute-angle convergence.  In the new traffic circle, very rare in California, just set up in Berkeley,  a few months of use and some yield signs seem to have done the job and we are zipping around and through it, correctly yielding to the traffic already in the circle.

Good as they are for vehicle traffic, however, they are really bad for pedestrians.  Notice the Economist’s careless implicit definition of “locals” as “people who drive in the neighborhood”.  Walking around a traffic circle of any size is either a long detour, crossing tributaries whose whole spirit is that their flow never stops,  or navigating a one-way whirl, twice, that never has a red light and may be two or more lanes wide.  When tributaries are light-controlled, things are almost worse: how do you get across DuPont Circle on your feet?…and that one even has a tunnel under it to divert some of the vehicle traffic.  The aerial view in the Economist article rewards close attention: the sidewalks in this suburban wonder peter out in confusion and gravel and actually disappear as they get near it. Obvously the traffic engineer had no idea what to do next, and with good reason.

Circles larger than the little three-meter traffic calmers that substitute for (or, wrongly, complicate) four-way stops at minor intersections take up a lot of space, aggravating the effect of roads in driving origins and destinations further and further apart and causing sprawl.  This space can be landscaped, but not used: the larger the circle the more unrelenting and unforgiving the traffic going around it that separates it from pedestrian life.

Too bad: another really seductive idea with fatal loose ends and crippling baggage.

Home energy conservation Cliff’s notes

Some comments on an earlier post suggest this would be useful to set out.


The energy required to keep your house warm in heating season is exactly the energy lost through the exterior walls, windows, doors, roof, and up the chimney if you have one.  Period.  First lesson: cut that loss. Weatherstrip, get storm windows, close windows, close the shades at night, insulate, close the damper (or the whole fireplace; a fire in an open fireplace actually cools your house by inhaling warm air and blowing it up the flue), etc.   These losses are about proportional to the temperature difference between inside and out, so if you turn down your thermostat at night, when you’re not at home, and even when you are  (put on a sweater), you are absolutely ahead.  You already know to do those things, but most people underinvest in them. You can save a lot of money and do the planet a big favor by just keeping heat in your house better. Second lesson: live in a smaller house, or an apartment building with living units on the other side of some of the walls and the ceiling.

This lost energy is replaced in several ways.  The first way is stuff you do for other reasons, like people and pets in the house metabolizing food, lighting , and operating your various appliances.  You can pick up a fair amount of free energy from the sun through your windows if you attend to the shades and drapes. All the electricity used by all your devices turns into heat; they are 100% efficient space heaters from the plug onwards.  The light from a light bulb too; it turns into heat when it’s absorbed by whatever it hits.   All this is usually not enough, so you have the second way: a furnace or boiler to make up the difference, and a thermostat to make this happen automatically (recall first lesson: turn it down).  Every time you turn off a light bulb, you are turning on your heating system. Continue reading “Home energy conservation Cliff’s notes”

CTW, facts and truth, and more like that

This American Life just broadcast the extended retraction of/reflection on Michael Daisey’s January account of working conditions in Apple supplier factories in China.  This  whole story is a bonfire of fact-truth-journalism ethical puzzles.  During an exquisitely painful conversation with Ira Glass, Daisey claims he told the truth, as a piece of theater, even though many of the facts he recited, especially things like “I [Daisey] saw X and Y at the Foxconn plant”, have gone up in smoke.  Glass is having none of it. He also admirably stands up on behalf of his staff to say “we screwed up”; not “we were brainwashed” or “lots of people make mistakes in this business” or “we’re sorry if anyone was offended” or “the staffer who erred has been fired”; “we screwed up, we’re sorry, and we learned from it.”

What’s the right way to think about something like this episode?  The key “facts” asserted are diverse in type and import.  For example:

Daisey saw an underage worker at the plant he visited.  (False)

Chinese Apple factories employ underage workers. (True, on other evidence) Continue reading “CTW, facts and truth, and more like that”

Bon anniversaire, Mademoiselle Liberté, et reste la très bienvenue

125 years old, still young and still hot. I love her.  I love where she stands, I love her crown of radiant wisdom and her torch and her book of laws, I love Miss Lazarus’ poem, I love that she’s an excellent sculpture on her own terms.  I love that you can buy bronze paperweights of her, and that she’s so familiar she can figure in cartoons and movies, in parts or in whole. I love that we fixed her up for another century (Bartholdi did a good job, but he (and Eiffel) didn’t know enough about electrolytic corrosion when you rivet copper onto a steel frame). I love the French for thinking the American experiment was their project, too.

Among the liberties she recalls today is freedom from broken bodies, ruined lungs, blindness, and the poverty industrial disability used to assure.  Here is where she was made: a filthy, smoky hell worse than any of Piranesi’s dungeons: not a pair of goggles or steel-toed shoes in sight, and just walking across the floor could break your leg. Every breath put asbestos in your lungs. Imagine the noise: this was a metalsmithing factory with everyone banging on sheet metal with a hammer.  Going up on the scaffold? Safety harness…what are you talking about?  Just try not to break any equipment when you land; you, we can replace tomorrow.

That’s where everything was made back then.  When she was restored in 1986, things were very different: for example, the workers had protection from Eiffel’s asbestos .  Save a thought for OSHA, child labor laws, Social Security Disability insurance, and the unions who made it safe to go to work in the morning and make stuff for us.

Small town virtues

A listserv that several RBCers belong to has had a discussion  about why the ancient meme that cities are evil, unAmerican congregations of overeducated snobs, while folks in small towns are decent, commonsense types who look out for each other and embody real virtue, persists. To the point that no candidate for office boasts about a city childhood, but people like Rick Perry seem to think they gain stature by going on about their small-town origins.  A parallel discussion has been reflecting on why small business seems to get the same privileged pass, and whether it should. No-one has invoked the name of George Babbitt yet, but he’s in the wings.

Sara Robinson gave me permission to post the following from that list about her home town of Bishop, CA:

In my mind’s eye, I can walk up and down Main Street of my hometown as it was 30 years ago and easily name 50 thriving small businesses, each of which was supporting at least one middle-class family, often two or three  (and I can usually name the families, too, because one of them was mine). On the profits they made from these businesses, these families were able to own nice middle-class houses, send their kids to college, take vacations, buy new cars, and generally live the American Dream as we understood it then.

Several things happened to put an end to that. First, K-mart moved into town, and in short order shut down several of the sporting goods stores, at least one book store, one family-owned pharmacy, two hardware stores (one of which had been in business since 1888), the local dairy, and a couple of dozen other core businesses. The result was a significant loss of middle-class, independent jobs, which were only partly replaced by the deeply inferior $6.50/hour jobs offered at the new store. Continue reading “Small town virtues”

Illinois and the amazing disappearing property tax exemption

When Harold Pollack wrote about the recent Illinois Department of Revenue decision to withdraw property tax exemptions from three hospitals, he naturally focused on the impact of the decision on health care.  But those of us who work in other areas of the nonprofit sector are worried by the decision as well-or, if we aren’t, we ought to be.

Though the Revenue Department’s ruling and the Supreme Court decision on which it was based both concern hospitals, there are now working their way through the Illinois court system a pair of cases challenging the property tax exemptions of luxury retirement communities.  The plaintiffs are taxing districts which would otherwise be collecting big bucks from the communities, one of which is located on prime Chicago Gold Coast real estate-just around the corner, as it happens, from Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which will now (barring court intervention) have to pay property taxes on its equally valuable swath of land.  Lower courts have already ruled both retirement facilities unworthy of property tax exemption, and lawyers involved in both cases expect victory in the face of appeal based on the precedent of the hospital cases.

So what’s really going on here?  Certainly withdrawing tax exemptions from wealthy organizations sitting on expensive land makes sense from the standpoint of municipal budgets, which here as elsewhere are stretched beyond breaking.  So the Illinois Department of Revenue is following Willie Sutton’s [apocryphal] advice to go where the money is.

But what the Illinois Supreme Court has now said is that there are only three categories of tax-exempt real property under the Illinois Constitution: schools, churches and “charities.”  Further, the Court said, a “charity” is not simply any nonprofit organization, or even any nonprofit organization entitled to 501(c)(3) status and tax-deductible donations under the Internal Revenue Code.  A “charity” for Illinois property tax purposes is an agency that gives things away.  How many things?  Worth how much?  This remains unclear: perhaps a “charity,” like “pornography,” is simply something a court knows when it sees it.

And if the question is, “Are you a charity?” will the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago be able to pass muster?  Will the Museum of Contemporary Art?  Will the Lookingglass Theater?  All three are located within spitting distance of the now-taxable hospital and retirement home.  So they’re likely targets for the next round of investigations.  What do they give away?  Worth how much?

(Just to confuse things even further: the Illinois constitutional standard is that only church property used for religious purposes is exempt; supplementary holdings are not.  I’m not aware of a parallel ruling about schools, but would expect the same standard to apply.  So if a charity owns property not used for charitable purposes-like, oh, vacant property the YMCA may someday use as a camp-will that be taxable?  If so, then it’s not even enough to be a charity-you have to be doing charity.)

As a consultant to charities, I’m supposed to be jumping up and down and screaming about this terrible precedent; but actually I’m not.  It’s long past time for us to ask the question whether arts organizations are genuinely charities.  (I’d ask the same question about well-endowed educational institutions and churches, but the Illinois Constitution prevents me from getting any reward for doing so.)  My only concern is how unaware nonprofit executives and Board members seem to be of the implications of these decisions.  Asked about her agency’s risk of having its property taxed, one executive dismissed the issue: “We’re a nonprofit-everything we do is charitable.”

Well, no.

This argument is playing out around the country.  What’s unique about Illinois is that the discussion is taking place in the courts rather than the legislature or the city council.  This interferes with any effort by nonprofits to rouse public opinion-or even themselves-in defense of their privileges.  Instead, the property tax exemption is going the way of the Cheshire Cat, bit by bit until there’s nothing left but the smile.

Let the Illinois nonprofit beware.

Sunday pylon blogging

A gallery of designer pylons and a British government pylon competition.

In 2008 I urged the not-yet-elected Obama team to build their promised national electricity grid using decent designs for high-voltage pylons. Low-voltage lines can be buried fairly cheaply, but this solution is prohibitively costly for the high-voltage long-distance grid backbones.

The latest country to have joined this bandwagon of virtue is the UK, which last week announced a competition for new pylon designs. Steven Chu please copy.

What’s going on here? (Photo gallery at the end, below the jump.) Continue reading “Sunday pylon blogging”

Why do we undercapitalize white-collar workers?

The  paper SF Chronicle has a front-page story about the crisis of deferred maintenance at California’s state universities.  [update 11/V; here’s the link] Things are as bad as you think. Dangerous things like leaks into electrical cabinets, power outages, a blackboard that fell off the wall and injured a grad student last fall; “broken windows” things like, um, broken windows, overgrown plantings, and a couple of times this year, a lawn outside my building so overgrown that when I walked through it, I flushed a rabbit and two small undergraduates. The story says Berkeley and UCLA are now listing almost $1.5b together (that’s a b, as in bzzzz) and Cal State campuses need another $450m.  If you’ve been in a K-12 school, you know what slums they have become.

The problem is actually much bigger than that: we are not only wasting millions and millions not fixing buildings when they need it, both by ensuring higher costs when damage (for example, from leaks) increases and by lost productivity of the people who are trying to use the buildings, but we are wasting even more by not having enough buildings. (We’re building the wrong kind of buildings as well, but that’s another story).   Disclosure of bias: I’m an architect by training and I believe the built environment matters a lot for many dimensions of the quality of life.  No, a great teacher cannot teach perfectly well on a lawn under a tree (I’ve tried it, maybe I’m just not great enough, but while the experience is charming and romantic, it’s pedagogically terrible.) But draw your own conclusions from these examples from my own industry, education: Continue reading “Why do we undercapitalize white-collar workers?”

Chris Christie: A Moron AND A Hypocrite!

The New York Times reports this morning:

The Christie administration, lenders and a new developer have reached a deal to revive the vast Xanadu entertainment and retail complex, which sits forlorn and unfinished along a stretch of New Jersey highway after having burned through two owners and $1.9 billion, people involved in the negotiations said Thursday.

 The plan: make it even bigger, give it a new name and slap a new skin on the much reviled exterior walls of the 2.4-million-square-foot complex.

The new developer, the Triple Five group, will invest more than $1 billion in the seven-year-old project. And Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to provide low-interest financing and to forgo most sales tax revenue for a period of time…

Hmmm…Chris Christie.  Where have I heard that name?  Oh yes, the guy who is supposedly the fiscally conservative Republican governor of New Jersey, the one who rejected billions of dollars in federal and external money for high-speed rail a few months ago:

If the tunnel—called the “Access to the Region’s Core,” or ARC project—doesn’t get built, New Jersey is almost certain to lose the federal money that had been committed to the project. The state will also have to pay back around $300 million that’s already been spent. Meanwhile, commuters and Amtrak riders will continue to suffer through long delays every morning as trains wait for their turn to pass through a century-old train tunnel under the Hudson. Property values near commuter rail won’t increase, as they did after the first commuter connection to midtown Manhattan opened in 1996. The people who were working on the project will, of course, lose their jobs. And the strain on the existing tunnel will continue to increase, until New Jersey is eventually forced to build a new tunnel, with or without the federal money and super-low interest rates that make the ARC project so attractive today.

You see?  If it’s a public good, then according to Christie it’s not “financially viable.”  But if it’s a particular boondoggle, then of course you can spend New Jersey taxpayer money to subsidize it.  That’s not just hypocritical: it’s economically insane.  It has the government picking winners and losers, while failing to provide the infrastructure to help the private sector generally.

You’d almost think that these guys don’t care about anything as long as they can oppose the President.