Sunday, May 18, 2008

There is a special providence in the fall of a turtle's egg.

After watching this:

I started reading Clay Shirky's book: Here Comes Everybody.

In there is the following quote:

Wikipedia invites us to do the following disorienting math: a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.

Here Comes Everybody - Clay Shirky - pg. 139

Which reminded me of something Wallace Shawn says in the film My Dinner With Andre:

Well, the meaningless fact of the fortune cookie or the turtle's egg can't possibly have any relevance to the subject you're analyzing. Whereas a group of meaningless facts which are collected and interpreted in a scientific way may quite possibly be relevant. Because the great thing about scientific theories about things is that they're based on experiments that can be repeated.

My Dinner With Andre - By Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory - Film by Louis Malle

Both of these quotes are getting at something important that I haven't figured out how to articulate well yet. There is a way, somehow, that intelligence can derive meaning out of meaninglessness. Something like that. It's something that no other process we have yet observed or devised can do. It's a bit circular, I suppose, in that it is only intelligence itself that seeks meaning - so that I guess you could define meaningfulness as "stories that satisfy intellectual curiosity", but it really seems more fundamental than that.

To me, at least, this still seems like maybe the defining mystery in sentience. There is a way in which it transforms mere consequence into structure. I wish I could say this better. I'll probably keep taking stabs at it here until I get a good formulation.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Brief Interlude Deficient of Attention

Since I started writing again, I'm trying not to do too many miscellaneous posts that amount to nothing more than "Hey! Look at this cool stuff I saw online!".

But, well, look at this cool stuff I saw online:

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

I could watch this all day. I want it to just keep going and getting bigger. It's really mesmerizing, and it has these moments that border on revelatory, you know? You feel like something significant is about to be communicated, almost, if you could just understand.

And, in a complete shift of gears, I moved a large entertainment center shelf in my apartment because I wanted more wall space to hang pictures on, but now the TV and audio equipment is just stacked in an unattractive pile on the floor. I've been wanting to do something artful with it, that won't block out the regained wall space.

I remember an old friend from college who was taking an architecture course, and was given an assignment to use a piece of cardboard to build a structure that could support his own weight for something like 30 seconds. Apparently, many people's more elaborate attempts collapsed under them before the clock ran out, but what my friend did was just cut the board in half, put half slits in the middle of each piece and slide them together as an X. This supported his weight for over the given time.

A few years later, for another friend I spent several weeks building weird costumes out of cardboard, duct-tape, crepe-paper and Elmer's glue, and then painting them. The end result was pretty cool.

Which is all a long winded way to say I've been thinking about making something out of cardboard and some combination of interesting finishing process to sit the electronics on top of. Cardboard is surprisingly sturdy if constructed intelligently, and can be made to look surprisingly good with some creativity.

Case in point, I came across this stuff today:

cartonnistes diy cardboard furniture

How to design your own cardboard furniture

Let's see if I can muster up the energy.

Maybe if I start taking anti-narcoleptic drugs. (That's not a drug ad, it's a link to an interesting blog post by someone who decided to experiment with taking a prescription anti-narcoleptic to enhance his mental acuity. It makes a rather persuasive case in favor... interesting read.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading Dwell

This is partly expanded on an email I wrote to someone, but the ideas have got lodged in my head and I need to type them out.

There is a magazine called Dwell. Since that magazine came out I've gawked enviously at the open gorgeousness of the houses photographed in there, but I stopped reading it a while ago out a an odd frustration.

The editors promote a philosophy based on affordable sustainability married with clean modern elegance, and I'm there totally with that, but then month after month the magazine seems to mainly feature expensive one-offs, tiny vacation houses that you couldn't really use as a full time residence, or else graduate architecture experiments. Actually obtaining or living in a house like most of the houses they feature is almost as out of reach as a more extravagant mansion. They seem to get tied up in what I can only think of as a sort of virtuous opulence - and though the virtue is great the opulence part sends the affordability (and the effectiveness of it as a design movement) out the window.

Which is frustrating, you know? I'd done a bit of deeper searching online for groups or even other individuals who might be devoted as amateurs to something more reachable, but hadn't really had much luck. I wanted some kind of open-source modern house project... something that had some or all of the following things as organizational ideals:

1) Build it with the least amount of materials necessary

2) Keep all components simple and easily accessible / repairable / replaceable. I mean, electrical wiring, plumbing, etc. doesn't really HAVE to be complicated. Construction doesn't HAVE to require large numbers of on-site contractors. It doesn't HAVE to be that hard!

3) Use the climate and landscape of the area to the structure's energy advantage

4) Make aesthetics a consideration in every stage of the design

5) Aim for construction that can be done well by a dedicated amateur

6) Aim to bring the total cost of materials in under $100,000.00

7) Keep an updated building code by region wiki-style resource to help people figure out what can be done where, and what they may have to go through to get something unusual approved.

It seems like that could be done. I had hoped Dwell would incline more in that direction, but it hasn't.

So my correspondent pointed me at this site:

At first glance I thought, well, neat! But it seemed fairly sparsely fleshed out, and seemed to concentrate mainly on Third World structures, so it wasn't quite what I had in mind. But that is because I was looking at this page:

Where I neglected to look at first was here:

That is much more like it! So - there is some delving to be done there.

Now, to tie this thinking in a bit with the subject of my last post - one of the things I've been thinking a lot about is that it's fairly easy to build a low energy consumption house in the southwest US, as the climate is favorable to human life pretty much all the time. But what about places like Buffalo, where it is mostly cloudy year 'round, often very cold, and frequently precipitating? I understand the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general has a strong movement of sustainable architecture and design, so more aggressive climates can be negotiated, but I don't know much about what that really takes.

One of the things I think will eventually happen with wind turbine generators is someone will someday devise a simple-to-assemble backyard kit. This kit will be sold at Home Depot for under $1000.00. It won't be anywhere near powerful enough to power a whole regular suburban home, but what it will do is take a bit of the edge off of electricity consumption in the winter months.

wind turbine atop roof
This picture of a wind turbine atop a building roof in Chicago (ironically featured in an issue of Dwell!) linked to from dane brian's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved You can read more and get a better view of the actual turbines here.

In the cold climate, it's this winter electricity and heating usage that really causes financial pain when utility bills arrive. Homeowners in these regions will be very open to anything that shaves some palpable fraction of this cost away, especially if it's easy to set up and they see some of their neighbors doing it without undue trouble. The second winter after these are introduced they will fly off the shelves, and every year thereafter they will get better and more efficient, and before anyone realizes it, suburban houses in the north latitudes will have wind turbines as often as they have swimming pools and satellite dishes. They don't have to power the whole house - they just need to cut the winter power bill by enough to offset their purchase price in the first half of the winter, and then save their owners an amount equal to their purchase price for the second half.

Houses in Buffalo are pretty cheap right now. Property values are down, and there are many abandoned dwellings.

An interesting experiment might be to buy the most inexpensive house there that can be found, and try modifying it to be both comfortable, stylish and use as little energy as possible without sacrificing luxury/necessities like cable TV, Internet access, refrigerators, washing machines, climate control and lights. Keep all the details about the endeavor publicly available online - show the costs and track them over a 3 or 5 year period. Make it as easy as possible for someone reading to replicate or riff on the experiment elsewhere, and share the details of what they did too.

Grow an open source home conversion project, and concentrate the initial examples on places with more extreme environments. Try to keep the crunchy out of it, make them support the kind of life people mostly really want to live. Not one of deprivation, but one of modest luxury.

Can it be done in a normal house, in an average neighborhood in a locale with a challenging seasonal climate? I bet it can. I kind of want to try it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Beau Fleuve

It was Mother's Day this past Sunday, and consequently I called my mother. In among the updates on weather, the stray cat that lives on the porch and the shocking lack of yard space in front of townhouses by the river, she mentioned something that turned our conversation in a direction I rarely go with the parents.

Apparently there is some large amount of effort going in constructing manageable small homes for the elderly. Now, the region we're talking about is Western New York, the area around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where I grew up, and where most of the clan still resides. This region boomed in the era of the Erie Canal, when all of Canada's cut lumber came down through on it's way to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Later, it boomed again when the steel industry thrived. I understand why the canal sparked a boom, I'm not as clear on why the region was advantageous for steel. But what happened after steel is that everything more or less crashed, and has been sliding into senescence ever since.

Erie Canal

The largest single employer there now is the State University. Graduates don't stay, though, the area does not welcome or support innovation, the arts, ingenuity or entrepreneurial experiment. The kids who can, leave. They don't come back. Many of the kids who can't, stay, have kids too young, and deepen the cycle of decline. Some good, creative young people stay and labor mightily to keep the machinery of community there alive. But very few stay. The average age keeps ascending, it's becoming a sort of lost land of the elderly. Empty, abandoned houses are a problem.

So now they're building to house the old folks more easily. When that generation passes, there won't be many left. I'll have to do a little work and check for numbers on these trends - but my experience, and that of others I know in the region still, is this - the population is graying and there is nothing to attract youth or energy to the region.


Erie Canal

Because here's the thing - Western New York could be the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy. This is a region that endures gales out of Canada over the Great Lakes, which are shallow enough to construct massive offshore wind farms in. It has giant freshwater lakes and the massive Niagara River the falls of which already have a hydroelectric power plant which I imagine could be improved or expanded so as to generate a lot more energy than it already does. It endures an overwhelming excess of water in the form of snow through the winter and rain for the rest of the year. Residents would be happy to have a bit less of that water coming out of the sky all the time.

I currently live in Southern California, and I'll tell you what the southwest doesn't have. Water! People keep moving here, las Vegas spreads out as far as the eye can see in its corner of Nevada, and every time I see it I just can't understand where everyone thinks the water is going to keep coming from! I'm sure some massive redistributive water pipeline from the northeast to the southwest is not really feasible, and would have undesirable consequences, but I'm sure there are other ways to reallocate some of Western new York's massive water wealth to the area's financial benefit.

Maybe when the aging population is reduced enough by time and the dwindling economy to no longer be an effective force in NIMBYing any transformative ideas into unfeasability, and if oil remains prohibitive, some real vision will take root there and the wind, rain and river will bring another boom.

If I knew how to do it myself, I would. It's like gold just laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up!