Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Primer on Bike Lanes

After reading endless debate on bike lanes, in part because of our cycling transportation plan here in Dallas, mirroring similar debates in Orlando and New York City (which has implemented nearly 400 miles of designated bike lanes) I have begun to formulate an opinion on the matter.

Advocates for bike lanes tend to fall on the city planning and urban design side of things (in general, but there are some noted exceptions). They argue, correctly I think, that the lanes tend to have a traffic calming effect and that they have the potential to complete the streets and make them more pedestrian friendly. Slower traffic and quiet vehicles like bicycles do make for a more pleasing atmosphere in a street scape. It comes as no surprise to me that people who advocate the construction of these lanes point to notable examples like Copenhagen and Portland, which feature some very lovely urban environments.

As a rebuttal to the more engineering-minded opponents of cycling lanes, they suggest that safety comes in greater numbers, and that the increase in mode-share is more important than some perfectly designed road solution (as noted by opponents, there are some potentially major flaws in several bike lane designs). There appears to be some truth to this suggestion, and according to several sources, injuries in some cities adopting lanes have remained relatively flat while ridership has gradually increased.

Opponents of bike lanes are practically minded individuals who recognize shortcomings of bike lanes that have yet to be overcome. Most notably amongst them is that paint on pavement doesn't stop motorists from treating cyclists as a different class of vehicle. For example, cars will cross over a lane of travel to make turns and thus block the bike lane (which is typically located on the outside edge of the road). Other concerns worthy of consideration are the loss of available lanes or on street parking for vehicles, or safety hazards presented by placing bike lanes in the 'door zone' of parked vehicles, as is done in Chicago, and a major one for Dallas to consider is the added expense of upkeep for the bike lanes, but we will come back to this in a moment.

Major opponents of bike lanes largely fall into the vehicular cyclist category and believe that bicycles should be treated as vehicles just like cars or trucks, and should enjoy the same rights, previlges and responsibilities. They note that even in the most developed city, bike lanes can't be everywhere, and eventually riders will need to ride in the street. The solution to the problem, in their minds, is proper education to overcome fear and to ride confidently and safely. While education is probably the only way to fight ignorance, the fear of riding alongside monster trucks and SUV's going over 40 miles per hour is quite a lot to overcome, and like it or not, people do feel safer behind a stripe.

Now, having said all of this, the truth is that both sides of the debate want the same thing: Increased, safer ridership and a decreased dependency on automobiles. I would bet dollars to donuts that everyone in this debate probably voted for the same presidential candidate. What Dallas needs is both education and facilities, with a focus and purpose. There are certain roads where the disparity between bicycles and vehicle speeds are simply too great. Just because we have a legal right to be there doesn't necessarily mean that we belong there.

What is surprising about the Dallas bike plan is that it suggests putting facilities where they are needed the least: Downtown Dallas. It is rare when a vehicle can achieve speeds near 30 miles per hour, and there are several alternative routes with varying degrees of traffic. Think of these like ski slopes. There are 'Green' trails that are easy for everybody, like Jackson Street, and then there are 'Black Diamonds' which demand a little more confidence and focus, like Ross or Commerce. None are so challenging that someone with the right information and a little confidence couldn't ride, even in rush hour.

What is a challenge though is riding a major arterial in the surrounding suburbs, where there is little to reduce the speed of motor vehicles or to amend their driving habits to be safer. Even when I take the lane on Live Oak (arguable one of the more quiet arterials of East Dallas) cars pass too closely, mostly because there is speed and room to straddle the lanes (which is illegal, but since when have laws prevented people from driving like jackasses?)

As a practical matter, the streets in the northern areas of Dallas tend to be in much better shape than the streets near downtown. I suspect that this has something to do with tax revenue in these areas, but I'm not entirely sure. Knowing that more resources are dedicated there rather than Downtown, it should be obvious that bike lanes there are likely to be maintained better than in the heart of Dallas. Streets in Downtown are constantly patched with steel plates or piss poor asphalt fills that can be hazardous to cyclists. There is debris in the street, not just the gutters, because the budgets have been cut for street maintenance.

So to me, a bike lane or cycle track down the Northwest Highway makes far more sense, even though ridership probably won't be that high. Putting one down Elm or Commerce really doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if it is shared with city buses (constant stops, erratic and illegal driving, large and intimidating vehicles, hot and smelly exhaust, even with the natural gas. Does this sound inviting to new riders?).

What is the solution? I don't think there is one in the short term, but both parties are right. There should be a serious education effort made now with school age children to encourage the use of bicycles for transportation, and they should learn how to ride properly, both in bike lanes where provided, and in the street where they are not. Vehicular cyclists are right on this point because there will be many occasions where bike lanes are not provided and they should ride as safely and knowledgeably as possible. Bike lanes will NEVER be a replacement for knowledge and education.

Safety DOES come in greater numbers, and if it takes a bike lane to get a greater number of riders from a high speed area to somewhere that is more manageable for vehicular cycling, so be it. But even with these lanes, it does not totally erase the safety issues that the interaction of motor vehicles and bicycles brings. Knowledge is still a must for safely navigating the streets. But as the number of cyclists increases, the awareness on behalf of operators of motor vehicles will increase as well.

To sum it all up, nothing productive will happen unless both sides of the debate embrace each other, and present a unified front to get more people out on the street cycling for practical purposes. Advocates should understand that bike lanes aren't the cure-all to urban woes that they think they are, and opponents should agree that, provided they are not made mandatory, and are only provided in areas where they are likely to increase ridership, there is no problem with bike lanes as long as education of cyclists is still a must.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Economics Is Not Fair

A conservative-leaning Harvard economist offers up this idea:

A more liberal Jonathan Weinstein offers up this rebuttal:
http://theoryclass.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/just-deserts.pdf

As though the idea of economics or taxation were predicated upon fairness!

Mr. Weinstein bites off more than he can chew by utilizing what I would consider two fallacies of logic: argumentum ad crumenam by relying on Warren Buffet as an arbiter for fairness in economics, quoted presumably because he was a subject of study in Mankiw's paper with regards to effective taxation, and the straw man argument that according to Mankiw, free market outcomes are fair. I believe that Mankiw recognizes in his work that some people come into better financial means in decidedly unfair ways (which is why he is in support of Pigovian measures).

Economics are to the economy what science is to religion: There are forces at work that guide human behavior in ways that economists cannot predict. What appears to happen is that on average, we see the correct values in transactions. In a static and perfect model of economics, there would be little room for arbitrage. Clearly this is not the case in reality. It is this unpredictable factor that leads to so many economists being wrong on market predictions.

Furthermore, Mankiw referenced in his paper the more classical economists, among which he included Milton Friedman. I doubt seriously that he ever considered the world 'fair', much less economics. Some people work very hard, but are poor allocators of resources. To the point, there is a reason an accountant is paid more than a ditch digger. None would deny that digging a ditch is hard work, but they lack the expertise to offer greater value to others, and as such are paid less. Fair? No, not really, but it has lead to greater wealth and success for all, in spite of the growing disparity between high and low income earners.

Even in a world where, as Mr. Weinstein paraphrased on behalf of classical liberals, there is equal opportunity for all, there still persists the inequalities handed to us by God (used in a colloquial sense). Try as I might, I will never be the great thinker that either Greg Mankiw or Joseph Weinstein will ever be. Fair? You tell me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cutting the Cable

First, my rig:

Living Room
- 32" flat panel TV
- Older digital audio receiver
- Playstation 3
- A Laptop (More on this in a moment)

Bedroom
- Smaller flat panel TV
- Roku Player

The Experience has been a good one so far. Before cutting, our bill was $120 monthly from Time Warner Cable with the HD package (underwhelming if I may say so), Two boxes which we had to rent, and cable internet. The offering just felt like a bad deal to me, so we began to take a hard look at the shows we really watch. We discovered that we really only care about one show in synidcation (The Closer on TNT) and that there were alternatives to paying over $1,000 a year for just that one show. The only other network we remotely cared about was ESPN because we are LSU grads, and college sports matter to us.

I would have been content to keep the cable internet and cut everything else, but Time Warner brokered a unique deal with ESPN that prevents non-TV cable subscribers from streaming content from ESPN3 (The answer to our sports prayers). So we dropped cable internet, which I think was $40 a month and switched to the best available DSL package from AT&T and bundled with our wireless, so it costs $15 a month.

The PS3 has streaming Netflix and Hulu Plus, which covers about 95% of the things we like to watch. To get the remaining 5%, we subscribed to Playon to stream stuff from the Food Network and Comedy Central to the PS3. And for the Closer, we will subscribe to Amazon Video on Demand when the show comes out. Though a season might cost $30, it's still cheaper than carrying cable costs.

I bought the Roku after learning that Hulu Plus would soon be available, and that it could stream Netflix to that TV, which is important to my wife. Aside from these two, the other web based content is fascinating and will probably keep me busy for years to come.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On Metaphors

Metaphors are snobbish inside jokes. It is regrettable that it requires a metaphor to describe a metaphor.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Me for President

Since the midterm elections are coming up, I though I would offer my solution for most everything that ails our government. Here goes:

1. Our most immediate problem is unemployment. If a politician wants to get elected, then he needs to promise that this will get fixed with the quickness. Last I checked, estimates for unemployment were somewhere around 9.5%. It's fair to say that the incumbant party, whether responsible or not, will have to answer for this. I know of two things that we could do, relatively quickly, that would rapidly reduce this percentage.

First, repeal the 16th amendment and replace it with a consumption based tax (a VAT would also be preferable to the crippling tax code we have in place right now). This would reduce the total financial commitment that every business needs to make to their employees without affecting the real income or take home pay of those employees. More free money, more spending, and finally, more hiring. I predict (without any credentials here) that this alone would cut our unemployment in half, maybe more.

Second, eliminate minimum wage. With unemployment so high, we need to really ask ourselves which is better; Having high unemployment with some sector of the population making a 'living wage' and the remainder making NOTHING, or everybody making something? It's a tough choice, but I think that 'spreading the' opportunity seems like the right thing to do.

2. Next is our national debt. This consists of nothing but hard choices, which politicians avoid like the plague. But let's look at the deficit and see if there is something we can do. The majority of our deficit is in debt to ourselves, in the form of IOU's to Social Security and Bonds. Bonds are a tough issue and are closely tied to spending, so lets go after the low lying fruit first: Social Security.

On paper, Social Security is in great shape with over 5 Trillion dollars owed back to it by taxpayers via Congress. (Congress is allowed to take out loans from Social Security, but must pay that money back with interests) Unfortunately, we don't have 5 Trillion stuffed under a mattress somewhere, and so we make installment payments. The payments are not big enough to cover expenses today, so there is a serious cash flow issue, and the burden is way too big to tax away.

My solution is multi-pronged. First, let's stop the problem from getting worse. We need to amend our laws to stop Congress from ever borrowing money from Social Security again. Its just like with people that have addiction to credit cards, we cut the cards up so they can't do any more harm to themselves.

Second, Social Security is in dire need of scope clarification and reduction. Social Security was started with noble purposes, but it has gradually morphed into a retirement pension system. On its face, this doesn't seem like such a bad thing, because they are making interest on investments by tax payers. The trouble is that they are making lousy investments with deadbeats (Congress) and so the investments aren't really going well enough to serve as a pension plan. The other factor to consider here is that people who have come to rely on Social Security are scared that the rug will get yanked out from underneath them. Therefore, we need a strategic and equitable withdrawal from Social Security.

Under my plan, everyone over the age of 45 at the time of passage of my perfect bill would still receive Social Security much as we do today, and everybody who works will continue to pay into the system. Everyone under the age of 45 will no longer be eligible for Social Security upon retirement, but only upon disability. In exchange for this sacrifice, Congress shall remove all caps and limitations from pre-tax investments, and shall not charge income tax on anything withdrawn from retirement accounts upon retirement for those under 45 at the time of the passage of the bill. When the last retiree dies, then whatever is remaining in the coffers shall be distributed amongst those who have paid into the system in proportion of contribution. Citizens would then be free to purchase disability insurance in the private sector in proportion to their income and needs. If there is still a massive deficit, then cancel the debt with the tax payers and never look back.

Now, back to bonds. Bonds are a good thing in limitation, and when the proceeds from sales yield some tangible or knowable asset, like roads or schools. Unfortunately they are now being used to subsidize entitlement programs, the war on drugs, or other pet projects that buy votes. The way to solve the bond issue is to seriously cap spending. Republicans fail on this issue every time because they advocate spending cuts. If they did nothing but cap growth and leave spending at current levels, eventually things would solve themselves and wouldn't make anyone a bad guy. Spending should be capped, and not allowed to rise again until we have a balanced budget, or until the deficit is a healthy percentage of the GDP.

Nations problems are now solved. You're welcome.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bicycling Down Elm Street

My favorite leg of my morning commute, Elm Street through the heart of Downtown Dallas. Today, got the bike up to 30mph! Fun because I was passing automobiles. Scary, because Dallas roads are terrible. Really terrible.

In fact, the only two accidents I've ever had on bicycle were caused by the poor road conditions of the streets of Dallas.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Better Email

I want to be a positive influence in your life, and make you an e-mail rock star! So, here is how we do it...Ready?...

1) Lets start with the subject line. If you are working on multiple projects, or are sending email to those who might be working on multiple projects, put the project name first, like this:

"Project Bananorama - xxxxx"

Awesome!

Now, lets make this make more sense. After the project name, chose something that is concise and to the point:

"Project Banaorama - OAC Meeting Minutes"

So why is this good? It's good because now the recipient can filter or file off emails for a project more easily. It would be tough if the subject was just 'OAC Meeting Minutes' because now I don't know which OAC Meeting we were talking about. You can probably leave dates out of the title because there will be dates associated with the email, unless you really need that kind of specificity.

As an added bonus, when the email is replied to and the subject line is:

"RE:Project Bananorama - OAC Meeting Minutes"

It will be easier for you to file or filter as well. What goes around comes around, if you'll pardon the phrase.

Sweet! You are now instantly better at email! But why stop here?

2) Now for the body. When you put together this email, consider what the recipient is looking for. Chances are good that it falls into one of three categories: Information, Direction or Humor. But you are probably at work, and humorous emails are never sent to each other, right? The other factor to consider is that the recipient probably has hundreds of unread or unfiled emails, and they don't want to read a treatise on meeting minutes, or whatever the subject may be. Consider something simple and elegant like this:

"I have attached meeting minutes from the Bananorama project meeting this week. If there are any questions or concerns, please let me know.

Thanks,
Lucy"

Short, sweet and to the point. About the only kind of email that requires a substantial body is a CYA email in which you need to explain how the project which is falling apart is actually Joe's fault. You know, Joe, from that other project team. I wouldn't put too much in the body unless you are confident that the recipient actually cares about what you have to say.

Awesome to the MAX!!!!!!!11!!!

3) Now to put it all together, we need to send it to somebody, right? There really is no hard and fast rule here, but suffice it to say that everyone in our society suffers from information overload. Just Google the phrase "information overload" for anecdotes and evidence to your heart's content. That being said, try to restrict the number of recipients to those who are absolutely necessary. If you know an email is going to multiple people in a business, and they have provided only one point of contact, just send it to that one point of contact and hope against hope that it makes it's way to the appropriate party. Also consider that if you are sending it to 50 people, you are probably doing it wrong. Create a group in your email and send it there.

4) Create rules to automatically sort your mail to the greatest degree possible. Otherwise, your email box will explode and you will not be able to manage it. If you have multiple projects, create a folder for each project. And if you know there is some repetitive email that you need to keep close track of, put it in a sub folder explicitly for that purpose. The idea is that as you get better at creating these rules, there will be less and less work involved in keeping your inbox clear.

5) Now for the single most powerful lesson in managing email:

DON'T PARK YOUR @$$ ON EMAIL ALL DAY!

You won't get any of the more important stuff done, and emails will keep piling up as you try to address every item that comes into your inbox. Email is a bit like a relationship, you have to make time for it in order for it to work out. Imagine if you tried to have a conversation with your wife while trying to type a paper, mow the lawn and talk on the phone. Pick a couple of times during the day where you do nothing but focus on reading and responding to email. I tend to address email in the following order (note that the list is in order of easiest to hardest):

- Delete any email that is not important to my job or wellbeing
- Forward any email that might better be answered by someone else, and then file it off if the rules didn't do that already.
- Read and file off email that was sent for informational purposes only (in other words, I don't need to follow up with a response on these items)
- Respond to requests for information, if it can be done in 5 minutes or less, and then file off
- Read email with tasks from higher ups, add these tasks to my to-do list, and then file off the emails

Do all this, and you WILL be an email rockstar!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Screens This $#!& ?!


I know this is supposed to be a post racial era, but really?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

It's Great to Be Alive

Perhaps this is not such a bad strategy for encouraging today's youth to make good decisions. I particularly enjoy the image of what's left over after hiding in the leaf pile. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bus of the Future

Thanks to a heads up from my coworker Mara!

Ever get stuck behind a city bus for blocks while watching the rest of traffic zoom around you and never let you over? China has the solution!


"Can't go over it, Can't go around it, Can't go under it. Let's go through it!"

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception and Architecture

I have no doubt that in the wake of the release of the movie Inception, there will be a wave of blog posts by architecture blogs about this movie.

I am not yet a registered architect, but I have a professional degree in architecture, have been in the field now for over three years, and have completed the mandatory internship and have successfully completed a majority of the required portions of the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE). I am by no means an expert, but by that same token, I am not unfamiliar with the subject either.

It is said that the director, Christopher Nolan, consulted architects while working on the story. I have to say, his consultations have led to what is perhaps the most consistent and real part of our industry.

DO NOT READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN INCEPTION, OR DON'T CARE ABOUT SPOILERS.

The blogs will likely gush over the prospect of a dream world of limitless possibilities, the idea of designing a world for the subconscious. This is the folly of sophomoric architectural thinking. In the movie, Ellen Paige's character is a young and 'idealistic' architecture student who is recruited to create dream worlds for others to occupy for the purposes of extracting information or secrets.

In order for this scheme to work, the dream world must have an air of familiarity or believability to it. As Ellen Paige begins to radically affect the dream world, she learns that the subconsciousness of the other occupants of her dream freak out and turn on the dreamer, to protect the conscious beings inside the dream.

Let me put this another way: If Frank Ghery were the architect recruited for this task, the subconsciousness of the dreamer might break out into L.A. style riots. If the architect were Greg Lynn, then World War III would likely break out.

In other words, they don't bring in an architect to dream big, but rather to dream small, so as not to alarm the occupants of the dream. They need somebody who can dream vividly and create a compelling and completely detailed world, and naturally, architects are suited to this task.

And so I would argue that the dream world and the subconscious are an analog for the architect's career in the physical world and with consciousness with the only difference being that the real world and collective consciousness of the populace is far more restrictive than the dream world. How many buildings have you been in that really challenge that which we are familiar with?

I would challenge you to set aside aesthetics for a minute and really consider how far we have come as a species in terms of architectural design and it's interaction with 'society' or 'culture' (two favorite buzz words for architects) or as suggested, on 'psychological operands/motivators.' The world really hasn't changed all that much. We still build walls and roofs. There are still thresholds and doors, and spaces that are set aside for purpose or program. In the end, the best we actually did was muddle these elements, and begin to question their necessity (after working so hard for thousands of years to establish their importance). But at the end of the day, they always seem to wind up in our buildings.

We may try to adorn our buildings with meaning or significance, but they still perform the same utilitarian task as the primitive hut.

But I digress. The instincts of Inception are dead on, even if unintentional.

Why is that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lunchtime Render

From Arch Backup

Yafaray, the open source ray tracer that captured my heart in college (at the time, the best thing going in the ray tracing department for Blender, and in my humble opinion, still is) will soon have a full featured exporter for sketchup.

The above image is a model that was whipped up at lunch today, and was created in a near perfect open source/free software workflow. The workflow was as follows: Modeled in Sketchup>Rendered in Yafaray>Export an HDR Image from Yafaray>Tonemapped in QTPFSGUI>LDR Post Proc. in the Gimp (includes tweaks to hue, saturation, and the addition of DOF blur). The Yafaray exporter is still in alpha, so the exporter makes use of Darktide's Sun/Sky lighting, and currently supports no materials or advanced camera features. But if this is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.

Link to the Yafaray2SK:

Sketchup is great for down and dirty work, but Blender is still the best.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Wasteland of Marfa


Went to Marfa with my wonderful wife. Unfortunately, it was only for a long weekend, and so our time was pretty much dedicated to the Judd and Chinati Foundations. There is something to be said for a change of scenery, especially into an entirely different ecosystem. Also in the area is the Big Bend National Park, and not far away, the Guadalupe National Park. I would love to return to do some camping and nature photography. The above image was taken from the Mysterious Marfa Lights viewing platform.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I Hate ________

It seems that there is always something that comes up during the week that leads me into this line of thinking: "I hate (something)! How hard is it to (Blank) instead of passing the buck onto the next person?" I am genuinely conflicted on the matter.

When I was learning to drive, I would verbally question every jerk on the road who would cut people off or not let them merge or otherwise drive like an asshole. My father would grow angry with me and yell at me to stop asking why. In truth, asking why didn't really solve the matter at hand. 'If that person would just be more considerate, what a wonderful world this would be...' I would put this in the 'Nothing will change so get on with your life' category. There is nothing I can do to correct this problem, so I should just keep my blinders on and focus on the problems in front of me.

The other is a problem I encounter at work. If a contractor fails to do his homework, and they try to pass the problem to us (this is rare, we really do get to work with some excellent contractors) then we send it back and say that it is their problem. Basically, we don't pick up someone else's slack if we don't have to. I would put this in the 'you need to solve your own problems, buddy' category.

The conflict arises when someone else should be doing their own work, and try to pass the buck, and I know I can make the situation better by picking up where they left off. It's 'Nothing will change (i.e. the contractor isn't going to do what he is supposed to) so get on with your life (and make this work)' vs. the 'you (Mr. contractor) need to solve your own problems (even though they will affect the outcome of the built design).'

What to do?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Motivation

I was asked by my boss how much longer I thought I would continue to bike to work during the summer. It's Dallas. It's hot. Surely no one has the willpower to continue this 365 days a year.

WRONG!

I have two factors at work here that really help me to continue on in my commute. Regrettably, one has to do with topography. The first part is key: if I ride to work, I have committed myself to twice the effort by being required to ride back. If you only have to commit to a small portion up front, the latter part is determined for you already. The second factor, as mentioned, is topography and location.

Dallas is hot in the summer, but is tolerable in the morning. This makes committing to the morning ride a lot easier. Topographically speaking, my commute is generally downhill one way. There is a 60' vertical drop from the slab of my front porch to the front doors of my office building, so the ride in the morning is quicker and easier.

I fancy myself a smart person, but I am human and can be lulled into making stupid decisions. We have a tendancy not to think a situation through to it's completion, so I have leveraged this in my efforts to motivate myself. It's kind of like talking a scaredy cat (yours truly) into getting on a roller coaster. The hard part is getting them in line. Once they are buckled in, there is no turning back.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reverse the Transportation Cash Flow with Cycling

When I started this blog, I was very excited about the prospect of using a robust public transportation system. This was something that Baton Rouge never had, and it was easy to identify as a way to save money and stress on the daily commute to work, and even to other locations. However, our location has changed somewhat and I have re-discovered the joy of cycling to get where I want to go.

Before public transportation, I would have to pay for parking either on a monthly basis or a daily basis. Parking on a monthly basis was something like $25-35, and to park daily for 20 days a month would cost $40 at a minimum (if I had to leave and come back, I would have to pay the fee again). Add to this the cost of gas to get there, and the miles that rob value from the vehicle, it was costing easily over $60 dollars a month just to drive a couple of miles.

This is where walking and public transit came in. Transit was purchased on a pre-tax basis and were partially subsidized by the company I am employed by. The cost was roughly $45 for a pass that was good for a month, including the weekends and holidays. Being pre-tax, the acutal cost to us was something less (though probably not much). The savings might have been small, but the peace of mind that came along with public transit turned this into a tremendous value.

In recent months, our government has tilted the equation in favor of cycling. If one abandons other transportation benefits in favor of a cyclist's commute, that person stands to actually MAKE money. If I ride to work at least 10 times in a month (roughly half the working days in a month) I can be reimbursed for legitimate bicycle commute expenses, including a commuting bicycle. So in a year, one now stands to make $240. I bought a commuter bike, and it is paid for, so now for the next three years I am 'reimbursed' for the expense which to us feels like making $20 a month for just commuting.

The only thing here is that this is a reimbursement, meaning that in the end, this will actually just eliminate the costs of commuting. However, breaking even beats sinking money into an object that has a sinking value.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One Rule to...er...Rule Them All

The Golden Rule:

'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'

This rule is for two kinds of people, who are often one and the same. One is a fool, and the other a well intentioned person who seeks to do right by the world. It is the greatest source of hypocrisy in our society. We teach this rule to children with little more thought than to try to avert childhood strife. We know that in childhood, we are closer to equal with our peers than at any other time in our lives. After childhood, we only embrace this rule in the most rudimentary way, and never in our efforts to advance our position.

Do you think that a leader or a successful man subscribes to this rule? Consider this, the next time that you have a request for your boss, and he tells you no, do you think he would appreciate being told in kind no to a request of his or hers? Of course not. The rich, the powerful and the successful all live by a different rule. This rule is the 'Platinum Rule':

'Expect of others that which you would never reasonably expect of yourself'

Be disgusted if you like, but if you are reading this, you are guilty of it without even knowing it. After all, in the place of your employment, you probably have cleaners or staff that scrub toilets. We ask them to complete these tasks because they are below our dignity or pay grade, or any other sorry excuse one can think of.

The first inclination of those who use this rule most successfully is to make the demand of another party. Individuals who wield this tool masterfully need do no more than this. As those less advanced in its use try, they may eventually run into resistance. The game is simple. Make the smallest of consessions as is possible, and give these begrudgingly. This is ideally bolstered with the implied argumentum ad baculum. After all, it should be clear who holds all the cards in this game. The purpose is to quickly get them back under your control so that they will do the things that you would never actually attempt to do yourself.

Do you have an idea that you would never visit upon yourself? Then use the rule with impunity and force those below you to complete this grueling task. After all, it isn't you that will be inconvenienced, and you will receive most all of the credit for the work completed as a competent manager with good instincts.

After a great deal of searching and trying to understand what sets apart the successful from those who are not, it has been boiled down to its essence: The Platinum Rule. The more one can utilize it, the more success will be achieved. The rule, to my knowledge, is universal. It is perhaps with regret that the key to our achievement engages the most reptilian of our instincts. But if you can decouple yourself from your childhood notions of fairness and equality, then you too can be set free and start down the path.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Insane Metaphor

Prepare for a metaphor that is too complicated to follow:

I am currently working on a data center for a medical institution in Texas, and there is a special room with electrical equipment that is dedicated to the functions of the data center. Because this is being built in a renovated building (originally built in 1958ish) this room must be located deep within the bowels of the building, next to all of the air handling equipment and storage on the lower levels.

These rooms contain batteries that could potentially off-gas hydrogen, a highly combustible element. As such, mechanical codes require continuous ventilation to the outside of the building, and the continual intake of fresh make-up air. Well, the mechanical engineer decided that it would be wasteful to simply send thousands of cubic feet of air conditioned air to the outside, after considerable energy had been expended to cool that air (If you've been in Texas in the summer, you'd understand.) His solution was to place an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) that would recapture some of that lost energy and transfer it to incoming air. This is not technically correct, but it explains in rough detail what this system does.

How is that a metaphor? Great question. Prepare to board J.T.'s brain vomit express. I would say that budgets are the ERV's of finance. When we send all of our money out, none of it is recaptured. When we don't track our spending, we simply lose that money to the world, and it is gone from us. With the budget, we can curtail the spending and put more back into our pockets for the things that we want or need. As I write this, I can see on top of our living room credenza a piggy bank in which we place all unused funds from cash withdrawls. We are recapturing some of that money rather than spending it on the next item. As a result, the piggy bank is getting heavy!

Recently, we started using Mint, found at mint.com, and so far we are very impressed. Immediately it pointed out to us areas where we are losing money or not making as much money as we could be making elsewhere. It also has a budget feature where you can set budget goals for different categories, and when the budget is complete, it will tell you your monthly savings. After setting up what I believe is a very generous budget, we stand to save over $1,000 a month, which is not an insignificant amount of money. With over $12,000 a year extra that is no longer going to waste, we can do incredible things with that money.

We should not so generously give away the money that we worked so hard for. We exchanged a priceless commodity for it: our time. I want to recapture as much of that energy as possible to yield back some of my life and my time.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Problem with the Profession

One of the guys I was talking to at the criterium race a couple of weeks ago shared with me his insight into a particular race held in the summer in Texas. The 'Hotter n' Hell' race is a 100 mile long day race in the dead of summer. I asked if he participated, and he said yes, but that it was over hyped.

I asked him why he felt that way, and he responded, "If you ride hard like we do, then you can finish the race in four to five hours. All the beginners move at a slower pace and bake in the sun all day. It's easier to do what we do." This is wisdom of the highest order.

I'll be the first to say that Architecture students and interns are amongst the dumbest people on the planet. They actually brag about putting in ridiculous hours and pulling all-nighters. They are like the beginners trying to ride 100 miles in grueling conditions, and rather than focusing and working hard to get it out of the way, they trundle along slowly and bake.

Logging hours is not the same as productivity. Anybody can be a warm body and check their facebook all day until the sun goes down. What if they actually worked with dedicated focus? What if as a reward they were given their time back. Do you think people would suffer the perversity of billable hours? I don't think so. We all say that if we could go back and re-do school, it would be totally different. For me, it would have been making the most of the 12 hours a week set aside for studio work, instead of working 40 unproductive hours or more.


Friday, April 30, 2010

Sorry your car is a piece of shit

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cat. 1& 2 a.k.a. Badasses


I randomly stumbled upon this race in East Dallas while out riding, and had to capture some footage. The crowd was kind of white bread (one guy was beside himself that he had actually eaten lunch in Deep Ellum...GASP!...and then called his wife to assure her that the rumors they had heard were not true). There was a kiddie race and a jr. class, though I didn't have a camera with me at the time to capture the footage. These guys are fast.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dear Sidewalk Bicycle Rider

I nearly ran you over in a car this morning. I was pulling out of our parking lot onto Houston Street, and as I pulled up the curb cut, you zoomed right past my hood, probably 1' in front. The reason this happened is because our building is right on the street. We are in the West End and there is no front setback requirement for our building.

I know the street was clear of vehicular traffic because of the sight lines from the drive. The sight line is not as good for pedestrians on a sidewalk, but they move slower and so the sight line can be shorter. The sight line is not long enough for a fast(er) moving vehicle like a bicycle. Your (apparently expensive) road bike is probably capable of moving 20mph or more on flat terrain. You do not belong on the side walk at those speeds.

If you want to piddle around in a grocery getter bicycle with fat tires and a wicker basket in the front, be free to SLOWLY move along the pedestrian path. Otherwise, it's time to move into the street or amend your riding habits if you value your life.

As a fellow cyclist, I understand the fears of riding on the road. But whatever your fears might be of being on the road, they probably would not compare to the very real fear of someone like me plowing into your side with a 2,000 lb machine.

Parking Pinch

I received a notice from the managing principals of the firm I work for that there are some new changes coming to parking. Because the lot currently used by my coworkers will become a construction site for a new museum within the next couple of years, and because apparently we have been thinking about the strategic advantages of aquiring land next to our property, we have purchased a parcel of land that has already been paved and striped for parking.

There is, however, a catch. We now have fewer parking spots than before, and the demand for the parking in the old lot was pretty high already. What is the solution? Rationing! As one might imagine, those with higher rank in the firm will get the first bite at the asphalt covered apple, followed by all the rest who started at the firm prior to December of 2007. The rest will have to pay more for whatever is left over, or seek parking elsewhere.

From what I am told, the chaos has already begun. People are fretting over where they are going to park and how much they are going to pay to do it.

Now comes the shameless part: I could care less! Slowly but surely, as our company grows, more people will be confronted with the dilemma of paying a higher premium for parking or making use of alternatives. I can't wait till parking in our area is $100 a month. If I ride a bicycle, I get rock star parking right next to where the principals and managing principals park, and in some cases better parking. Even better, I don't get stuck in the parking lot waiting for gridlock traffic on Houston Street to let me out. I routinely beat my coworkers out of the downtown loop on a bicycle and have the added benefit of getting some exercise in the process.

Scratch one more thing off the list that I don't have to worry about now that I leave the car at home.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Good Quote

Posted by Robert E. Lee on Facebook:

"In the hopes of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet." - Albert Schweitzer

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Day

I find that with each trip I make while driving, I am more keenly aware of an emotional switch. I become more aggressive and irritable. Every little rude thing that other drivers do makes me agitated. It's strange, but when I'm on a bike and I'm the slowest thing on the road, the rage goes away.

I'm not a roadrager and never have been, but my attitude is certainly more positive when I'm on the bike. I have more to fear for and am more vulnerable to the whims of drivers asleep at the wheel, but somehow this doesn't bother me. I guess it's because riding a bike is a recognition that I am not really in that big a hurry to get somewhere.

It's my coffee, my exercise, my mental preparation and satisfaction.


Monday, March 29, 2010

I Got the Boot


Went out to take pictures for a travelling fellowship submission on Transit Oriented Developments, gathered images from several notable sites here in Dallas: Downtown Plano, Galatyn Park, Park Lane, Mockingbird Station, West End, Victory Park, Cedars and Baylor Station.

Park Lane doesn't like people taking pictures of their buildings. I guess it does make sense to discourage free publicity and academic study of your facility. I was told by a security guard that I needed permission from the facility manager before I could take pictures.

Fair enough, I wouldn't want to upset patrons to Dicks sporting goods or Nordstrom Rack.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Green For Thee But Not For Me

I learned all my tough lessons about riding in the street in Baton Rouge, a college town where people were notoriously rude and disrespectful to cyclists. I had concerns about riding in a big town like Dallas, but I have to say that riding here is far superior.

My office has facilities for cyclists and alternative commuters including bike racks, changing rooms, lockers and showers. However, in an office of 300 people and in a firm that is dedicated to being green, only about 5 people regularly commute by bike. This is regretful because most of the young interns and architects live within 3 miles of the building. There is a DART rail station and bus transfer station three blocks away, and several bus lines that pass within one block past the community college.

I think at the last count our firm had over 70 LEED AP's, and since I am not one of them, that means that at best, only 4 of those LEED AP's actually makes use of alternative or public transportation.

I say it's time to put up or shut up. If you want to claim to be green, and become green employee of the month, why not try to leave the car parked in the garage for a month. Try walking or riding a bike or taking public transportation. I hate having to listen to designers bitch and moan about Dallas and how it doesn't compare to other urban experiences. I especially hate how they worship rails and eschew buses, and then make use of neither. Want to get around without a car? THEN DO IT! Haircut? Rail to Cityplace. Movie? Rail to Park Lane or Mockingbird Station. Groceries? Rail, bike, or walk! There are convenient bus lines everywhere! Or if you have a bike, it's pretty easy to get to a destination or a rail station.

Please, no more lectures on public transportation, cycling or bike lanes in Dallas until you have tried them out.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Trouble in Ennis

I'm not from Texas, and I had to ask a coworker from Tyler where Ennis was. A cyclist who uses bicycles for his daily commute has been arrested and issued citations for riding a bicycle in the street (in this case, HWY 287). If you conduct a google search, you will arrive at several cycling advocacy sites that are offering aid and support to this gentlemen.

The reason that this case interests me is two-fold. First, I ride my bike to work on the street just about every day, and dread the thought of being pulled over by the police and possibly arrested. Especially for something that isn't a crime. The second overlaps my professional life somewhat. The architecture firm that I work for cares a great deal about sustainability and the environment, and has made a strong commitment to LEED building standards, encouraging clients to pursue certification for new construction whenever possible. One of the many areas for certification is the procurement of locally sourced materials to reduce transit and carbon footprints.

Ennis has a steel mill that is a favorite of both designers and contractors in the North Texas area. I guess it's ironic in a sense that the city that has proven to be a linchpin for sustainable buildings in Texas would have such a backwards policy on perhaps one of the most sustainable alternatives for transportation. The politician in me wants to make lemonade out of this. Perhaps the mayor could mimic Tom Leppert and bring a commitment to green to the town of Ennis! Start with alternative transportation: education and encouragement of cyclists and motorists to share the road.

As an outsider looking in, the competition between towns and cities in Texas is fierce, and this could prove to be an incredible opportunity to bring a new level of interest and commerce into the town. But every good designer knows that before you build, you dig and remove obstacles.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Took the Long Way Home

After having a great day at work, I decided on a change of scenery for the bike ride home. Instead of going up (up as in up hill) San Jacinto and over to Ross or Live Oak, I decided to take Commerce Street! It was during rush hour traffic, but never have I felt so calm and in control on the road. I only got one honk today, and I could care less! I had the right of way and the right to be in the lane.

So I rode from the West End near Old Red down Commerce, under I-45 and through Deep Ellum, then clipped the corner to reach the park. All in all, a stress free ride with some interesting scenery and people. I look forward to doing it again soon.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gone Intermodal!

Yesterday, I dragged my wonderful wife on a bike ride and picnic on White Rock Lake. I crammed a picnic blanket, a couple of sandwiches and some snacks and water for our trip into a very large pannier. Unfortunately, my wife was terrified to ride in the road. I tried my best to explain that the safest place for a cyclist is in the road, preferably well into the lane and not on the gutter where cars will try to pass with minimal distance. In spite of this, we both made it in one piece (should be no surprise there, riding in Dallas is very safe, and most drivers are very respectful) at the DART station on Pearl Street and rode up to the White Rock Lake station. The SLRV makes it easier to get a bike on and off the train, and even has bike racks, but these would prove impractical at rush hour. The trains were only moderately full and we had to inconvenience passengers just to get the bikes up.

I must make an admission that we did not ride on the street to get to the pedestrian bike path. I can see now why VCs do not like riding on the side walk, they were filled with debris and broken glass, and cars passed by at 40-50 miles an hour!

We finally navigated our way to the pedestrian bike path and rode down to a nice sunny spot on a hill with a great view of the lake and the activity below. People were out walking, jogging, biking, sailing, rowing and even kayaking! Nothing like a beautiful day in Dallas to bring everyone outdoors. On the ride up to the hill, my wife made an astute observation, "Riding [on the pedestrian path] is just as annoying as riding down the Katy Trail." I grinned ear to ear and offered to ride in the street, which was an unwelcome alternative.

I noticed a lot of cyclists out there on very expensive bikes riding both the trail and the road around the lake. It's easy to tell those who ride as a commute from those who just do this sort of thing for exercise. I don't ride a fancy bike, in part because I think it would fall apart on the terrible roads of inner city Dallas, but also because I don't need a $1,000 bike to get to work. My 'hybrid' $100 bike from WalMart (with a little work and modification: brakes were terrible and the spokes were in desperate need of adjustment to balance the wheel) does the job just fine. The other thing I noticed is that several of the cyclists out there failed to 'take the lane,' which is essential to bike safety on the roads. I guess they've never been in traffic before. It's fine to get out there and pretend to be Lance Armstrong for a while, but at least be safe about it.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

I Love My Health Insurance

Why? Because it is the coverage I need and without the bureaucracy that I don't. Allow me to elaborate. I have what is called a high deductible plan. It means that my insurance won't help to pay for medical care until a certain amount has been paid out by me. This sounds awful on the surface, but my employer has found a novel way around the problem, and I'm sure that many other businesses do this as well: They reimburse me throughout the year for the payments.

My deductible is $1,150 a year before insurance kicks in for a more traditional 'copay' style. I am compensated an additional $1,150 into my HSA, and this in turn pays for my medical expenses. My maximum out of pocket is only about $4,500 before insurance totally takes over, and since I would only have a 20% copay after the deductible, this means that I would have to access over $16,750 worth of medical care before insurance totally picks up the tab.

Being young as I am, it is not very likely that I would access that kind of care except in some catastrophe. The money that I don't spend in the following year rolls over into the next year, so every year I am a little less exposed, and in the meantime take a greater interest in my medical expenses. My thought is that this money will continue to grow until this coupled with emergency savings will be enough to handle any medical disaster later in life (barring, of course, a disaster early on).

But the very best part of the plan? Since I pay the majority of my medical expenses, I don't have to work around an intruding insurance agency, working a narrow web of doctors and having to receive referrals to specialists if I know I need one. It's nice to have the freedom to see the doctor I need to see rather than going to a family doctor, who in turn recommends the wrong specialist, who again in turn refers me to another doctor.

Besides all of this, all of my preventative care is covered, free of charge, by the insurance company. Annual doctor's visits, inoculations, eye exams etc. It's in the insurance company's best interest to detect and address problems and illnesses before they grow unmanageable.

I think the high deductible with the HSA strikes a nice compromise on health care for people willing to be prudent, plan and save for the future. The way I see it, the money I spend would have been spent in the form of a lower salary to purchase a low deductible plan. At least this way, my employer has provided me with a little more control over how my health care dollars are spent.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Back On the Bike

My ass has finally recovered from the pot hole incident. I rode in this morning, when it was freezing cold. I think my hands might have suffered mild frostbite...

Anyway, can't wait for warmer weather.

Quote of the Day

"Our tax money is going to support these wealthy companies, in the form of tax breaks"

-Tim Burga, AFL-CIO

What a curious thing. The government is distributing wealth to someone by not collecting wealth from someone. Can I take this a little farther? If the poor receive tax breaks, as they do, are they made wealthier? Or is it merely that what little wealth they have is more preserved from the ravages of taxation. I suppose it doesn't matter much to Mr. Burga that increased corporate taxes would likely result in more expensive products, reduced demand from higher prices, and in all probability a reduction of jobs available for the very union workers whose interests he claims to uphold.

But consider this: If tax breaks were given to the wealthy, does this mean that more taxes are then collected from the poor? The answer is no. Cutting taxes for the rich never increased the taxes for the poor. In reality, they just shared a little more of the overall tax burden for a smaller collection of revenue for government.

If the rich are taxed in greater proportion of their earnings, does this in turn increase the earnings of the poor? Again the answer is no. In the progressive tax scheme, there is no winner except government. Everybody will pay taxes of some kind, and if history is any indicator, those taxes will increase with the insatiable appetite of government programs.

Remember, when the 16th amendment was passed, it was largely thought that only the very top 5% of wage earners would ever pay taxes. Now, teenagers with part time jobs at grocery stores have to pay their fair share. Our tax system is no longer a suitable means of collecting revenue, but has become a mechanism for the dispensation of social justice, with a complex tax code and loopholes to prove it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Meeting Manners

Somebody needs to establish rules for how to conduct a meeting. Somebody has probably already done this, but here is my version from first hand experience:

1) If you ask for the meeting, you should have to put together the agenda for that meeting and keep everyone on task.

2) Pay attention, asshole. Put down the Blackberry/Iphone/Droid/Whatever the hell and actually keep up. Besides, you will look retarded when there is a serious discussion and a question is asked when you aren't paying attention. Besides, I would be willing to bet that any email you receive during the meeting can wait until after the meeting.

3) Don't invite the entire planet. Seriously, does the janitor really need to chime in on best practices for project management? Didn't think so.

4) Take notes. I'm not here speaking just for the hell of it. I am really trying to impart important information. You are not the rainman, and you WILL forget what was said four weeks ago.

5) Don't come unprepared. Of course, having an agenda ahead of time for everyone to see prior to the meeting would make this easier. If there is no agenda, then don't complain when no one in the room has the materials that you need. If, on the other hand, there is something important that you need to talk about at the meeting, have handouts or prints or something to put in front of people. Also, bring pens/pencils to make markups. This is a personal annoyance because I don't like having to drag my entire desk top of crap to a meeting only not to use it. I have a back condition and this causes actual, physical suffering for me.

6) If we are from different organizations, and I am not a member of the one hosting the meeting, don't expect me to share meeting minutes unless you are willing to share the burden. Besides, meeting minutes I take are going to be presented from my point of view, not yours.

7) Don't try to solve the problem in the meeting. These are just for an exchange of information, and in all likelihood, this issue will bring up others.

8) We don't like talking out of turn in grade school, so what exactly has changed now? Don't hold side conversations during somebody's presentation. If there is something important to say to one person, either say it aloud in the meeting, or talk off-line. Rude.

9) Seriously ask yourself: Could this issue be addressed through email or a phone conference? Dragging a bunch of people away from their desks takes just that much more time out of the day and can be a productivity killer.

10) Leave the chickenshit at the door. Nobody wants to take part in your personal pissing match. If you have problems with someone at the meeting, then recognize for our sake that these are YOUR problems. Please don't share them with the group.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Irony of Meeting Minutes

It seems that just about the time one actually knows what belongs in the meeting minutes and what doesn't, that individual is no longer the one taking the notes.

I guess it's a variation on a theme. Just when we are getting good at something, we move on to other greater tasks and the skills that got us there probably just languish. Ever had that boss that came to your desk not knowing how to do something technically complicated? Those people have skills and wisdom that are worlds apart from my own. I guess being in the stratosphere for so long, some just forget how to walk. Most, I imagine, would welcome this departure of knowledge (I certainly would. I don't think I would feel the least bit bad if I moved on from AutoCAD and Revit).

Then there is the 'Office Space' mentality that bosses seem to be promoted to their own incompetence. I have yet to personally witness this. All of my bosses are very wise and have a perspective that only experience can bring. In reality, Bill Lumburg [guessing at the spelling here] would probably have worked in low level positions hoaning skills that would later enable him to be a successful manager. Far from being stupid or incapable, managers are abundant sources of information and knowledge.

In a grander scale, someone like me might command the services of others who have been less successful at developing skills and knowledge, and likewise I am commanded by those more knowledgable.

There is always a bigger fish, I guess