Apathy Towards the NSA Leaks

I was at a bar that one of my friends runs near Wrigley Field when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. I hadn't considered that the area would turn into a full on mostly peaceful drunken riot. Not so bright in retrospect. I'll get back to this.

On the train there I read an article (worth reading) that outlined the blowback the US is beginning to experience from the rest of the world concerning the NSA leaks. It's intriguing because it's such a comprehensive non-US-centric view, and this isn't on the list of common talking points in the US. The main issue I and many people have had in reacting to the NSA programs is, what exactly does one do about it? Riot or demonstrate in the US? Not likely.

The crowds in Wrigleyville proved otherwise. The police can't control that many people, and if they tried to use violence it'd just bring more attention to it. The depressing part is that people will form en mass for hockey but not to protect the Bill of Rights, and I'm not bashing people liking sports. I just wish people gave a fuck about the world they live in. To be fair, it's not that obvious or easy as protests aren't planned for a specific time like a hockey game.

What's so strange about the whole affair is that the Obama Administration and Congress are walking in lock step on the matter; the first issue both parties have agreed since I can remember (wtf?). Obama mostly keeps talking about how he's going to extradite Snowden, but not a single person I've talked to wants this. Yet he keeps saying it as if to pacify. What we want is for you to stop acting like the Stasi, or maybe just keep your campaign promise (italics are my emphasis):
Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Update: Obama doesn't think this is a big deal.

Government Agencies Hiring Architects: Kind of a Waste of Time

Disclaimer: This post represents my views and not that of the firm I am employed at.

Recently the architecture firm I work for submitted what is known in the Architecture and Engineering (A/E) community as an RFQ (request for qualifications) for the City Colleges of Chicago's new Malcolm X College. An RFQ consists of sheets detailing relevant work that the firm has engaged in recently, proof that the firm is insured, forms signaling that the firm doesn't have conflicts of interest, financial statements going back several years, etc. You get the point. It's a lot of information. I was in charge of putting together the RFQ for my firm along with the fifteen other firms we partnered with.

The project itself is an educational facility that has a teaching hospital component and a budget of $251 million. My firm designed two of the three hospitals that Malcolm X College has a partnership with, so we're familiar with the area and its stakeholders. We specialize in healthcare, teaching hospitals, high rises, corporate centers, and higher education.

The A/E team that won the contract can expect to see maybe 4.5%-6.5% of the $251 million budget, so the design fee will be roughly $12-$15 million which gets split between more than a dozen professions - structural engineers, architects, geotechnical engineers, etc. It's the kind of money that allows you to expand your office and hire additional staff.

Submitting for these RFQ's is a gamble. They consume a lot of time and energy that could go towards billable work. I personally put in well over 160 hours for this proposal and there were multiple people who worked with me. The document we produced is 290 pages and was coordinated between sixteen separate consulting firms. The submission required multiple physical copies in addition to electronic copies that had to be couriered over to the CCC's headquarters. All of this is done at our expense. We aren't reimbursed for anything. I would conservatively place the cost to my firm, not including the cost to our consultants, at well over $10,000 and probably closer to $20,000 or more. To be clear, we are aware that this is a gamble and typically only go after jobs that we think we are highly qualified for and have a good chance of winning.

We were selected for a call back after the initial submission, so we had to produce yet another set of booklets and show up for an interview. This requires more preparation, more printing, and more hours. We then had a second call back that was followed by more questions:

"Does your firm have enough people for a job of this size?"

"We have nineteen people in our office and we've partnered with another firm that is similarly sized. We also plan to hire additional staff." And the truth is that today's software (BIM, Revit) is so powerful that really this project could be done by maybe less than ten people in our office if they worked on it full time. We've designed buildings that were many times this size (Water Tower Place, Prudential Plaza/Tower, Old Orchard Shopping Center, etc.)

"Your team is very diverse but what about your firm?"

Crickets. How do you tell a review committee that your firm went from roughly 65 people to nineteen in the matter of a couple years? Architecture is feast or famine and right now we're starving. We used to be diverse and to some degree we still are. We're just not the kind of diverse they're looking for.

It was announced (source) that Moody Nolan, a firm based in Columbus, Ohio, won the contract. Their Chicago office has nine people (related). They also happen to be the largest African American owned architecture firm in the US; a fact that both the mayor and CCC are very proud of.

Moody Nolan is qualified to do the work and I harbor no ill will towards them, but why did the CCC pick a non-Chicago based firm? Especially since they keep touting how many jobs the project will bring to the Chicago area. Why did they question our size if they picked a firm that's local office is less than half of our size? This contract is for design development and construction documents (the design was done by Canon Design) so it will have to be handled locally with feet on the ground. Why did they question the racial makeup of our firm if we exceeded the MBE/WBE requirement (25% minority, 7% female) by almost three-fold? Are you really telling me they couldn't find a qualified architecture firm in Chicago?

I call shenanigans.

Many of the RFQ's we submit for are to some extent a ploy. The agencies asking for them are largely going through the process to satisfy legal requirements, but then choose not the most qualified firm but the one that fits whatever profile it is that they're looking for. And that's to be expected, but don't drag us along and waste our time and money. We don't have any to spare.

After the announcement my firm had a very terse Monday morning meeting. We were told that five people would be laid off by the end of the day and everyone else's hours would be cut by 20%. Just fourteen more people and an almost century old Chicago architecture firm will be out of business.

Where Did All the Real Republicans Go?

For the past several years I've been increasingly concerned about the change in course of the GOP. They have a different ideology than myself, and that's fine. In fact I think it's necessary for a healthy political process, but it seems like they're making up their own reality. All the while I've been worried that the change was not in fact with the GOP but perhaps my own biases... maybe? So what to do/think.

Historically when I think of Republicans this is what I think of:
I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. -David Frum
And although I don't entirely agree, I find it to be a reasonable position. It does one no good to only read things that they agree with - it's intellectual incestuousness. So for a while I've been searching for a voice on the right that I could actually listen to. Someone who held a different viewpoint than myself, but who actually lived in reality. It seems that person is David Frum - a former Bush speech writer, prominent blogger and writer, and Harvard Law Grad. Here are two of his pieces that I've found very helpful.

The first piece of his I read was this one: Were Our Enemies Right? which if you have to read only one thing this month please read this - it's short and dead on. First he brings up an example from Susan Sontag:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
The point is of course that liberals were entirely wrong about the realities of communism. It was corrupt, people starved, and once great nations were reduced to ineffectual countries that hurt generations of its citizens. Argue all you want about the idea of communism but it just didn't work. As Frum says, "You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts." So he puts a new spin on this for our modern day economic situation:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Frum has more or less been shunned by his conservative peers for saying such things just as Sontag was booed loudly by her liberal crowd. Krugman is reviled by the right and he can often be a little shrill to my own ears, but the guy just keeps being right... it's actually kind of shocking.

Anyways, Frum has a new article about the direction of the GOP entitled When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality? It's a bit long but it's entirely worth it. I'm interested to hear what people think. He says a lot of things I've been thinking for years but had no credibility in saying as I'm not associated with that ideology.

The Koch Brothers

This article by Malcolm Gladwell is well worth the long read. It gives a really good look into the long game played by certain libertarian/very right of center very wealthy individuals - in this case the Koch brothers.

Readings From Monday

This is a free movie produced by a group of two guys called the Yes Men. Basically they find ways to trick event promoters, journalists, and talk show hosts into believing that they represent some company. They then go on to embarrass the company by revealing truths, stating positions that make sense but that the company themselves would never agree to, or just straight up comedy. At the very least watch the first 10 minutes or so.

Economists View via Krugman (seem to be reading a lot of him lately... yet he's so accurate and great at representing data) - why the climate bill was killed.

The Big Picture explains why deficits don't matter much to bond holders which is kind of an explanation of what Krugman would call the invisible bond vigilantes. thirty year bond notes are still below 3%... Also, AMAZING graphic on federal income and expenditures.

(Explanation of what I'm talking about - bonds being below 3% means that EVERYONE is willing to lend the US government money because they view it as safe. This goes somewhat counter to the idea being promulgated by conservatives that as the government amasses more debt bond buyers will at some point be completely unwilling to lend the government money and bond prices will soar and we will be unable to finance our expenditures - i.e. Greece. My own addition to this is that the US government enjoys a position of lender of last resort to the world - that is - if we default the world we know will cease to exist. It will make the Great Depression look like a shallow recession. It's like the Supreme Court, it's not that they're infallible, they're infallible because they're the highest court in the land.)

The Big Picture on net worth on as percentage of disposable income.

Algae as a biofuel seems to be nearing the possibility stage.

The biggest story of the day - wikileaks published 77,000 reports from Afghanistan that give a different view of the war then what is generally portrayed.

This is a must read: Martin Wolf, a British economist, explains supply side economics or rather the failure of along with a host of other scientifically broken models that politicians love to tout. Scarey. Here's Krugmans simple take down of supply side economics.

Nanosecond market trading pushes the envelope of internet speeds for all.

Readings #2

Want to try out a Leica M9 for a few hours? Go to NYC... damnit.

Hawaii puts the kabash on "birthers" (people who think President Obama is not a natural-born US citizen) because they're burdening the health department with all their requests. Even the right is embarrassed, and this is coming from people who expect you to be bad at math to buy the party line.

Interesting design company in Brooklyn called RockPaperRobot.

Life on earth has one common ancestor. Not to say that life on earth only arose once but rather that life does in fact (by odds of about 100,000 to 1) share a family tree and not a web.

Apparently 3-D TV's are coming out soon. The real lesson here is more that technology is changing at an increasing rate, so much so that at some point consumers are going to face interesting dillemas towards adopting new technology. A common theme in history is the adoption of new technology and how this effects societies, economies, etc., but a common occurance I'm noticing is that change is so quick now that we have a hard time adjusting. Architects barely learn a program before it is obsolete. We purchase technology that is obsolete within months and years (my laptop is 3 years old and it can barely run the newest software I put on it), and we train for jobs that are no longer needed well before we are middle aged. I'm not sure where this all points but it's interesting none the less.

A company called Square has just released an application and (free) hardware (plugs into your headphone jack and is tiny) that will allow you to process credit cards on either an iphone or android based system. The fees are 2.75% + 15 cents or 3.5% + 15 cents if the card isn't present. This should make splitting lunch bills easier. I've always wondered when we will get rid of tangible money and use something similar to this, but probably less cumbersome regardless of the fact that this system is fairly light. Imagine just a fob that you can run across someone elses phone then you type an amount into your phone and they accept. Anyways, I doubt tangible money will die off for a long time, people are clingy and hate change (seriously, read that article - no pun intended). There are multiple lobbies and advocacy groups in Washington that make sure pennies and nickels get minted even though they cost 2 and 9 cents respectively to make. The advocacy groups think that changing the material of pennies will somehow decrease their value. Hey interest group - fiat money system. It's all based on confidence. This isn't even worth writing about, it's just sad that we are so encumbered by bureaucracy and interest groups/lobbyists and inability to make logical non-political decisions that we continue wasting out time with pennies, nickels, dollar bills and tangible money in general (although I don't advocate abandoning it just yet... but steps should be taken to start). Getting rid of the first two and making the other a coin would save us hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Plus, no more stupid pennies.