Small is Beautiful

Tata Nano, the world's least expensive car.

This article about the Tata has me a bit worried. For those of you who don't keep up with Indian automotive companies, the Tata is the world's least expensive car. It's spartan as hell and costs $2,400. The problem lies in the fact that Indians aren't into the idea of owning the worlds cheapest car. It's just not selling (contrary to this Wired article from 2008 which predicted that it would be a huge eco-problem because it would put so many people on the road, I agreed then, oops). And that's a problem for me. Let me explain.

Green technology is incremental. The gains it provides are percentage points, and as percentage points go they tend to be low. Not that I'm against them, I think it's a great effort, and I'll try to employ them probably even more than most architects. But I have a different approach too. If I only learn a few lessons in architecture school, one of them will be that every square inch costs money.

Oh? Don't want to pull that flat wall in to fit the contour of the rooms? Only 10 square feet you say. Well let's see, that's $140 a square foot in hard costs, plus your borrowing costs and other fees - times 10. Yup, that just cost you $2,000. Want to put a kink in that wall?

If your home is half the size it costs half a much. Half as much to heat. Half as much to cool. Half as much to repair. Half as time much to clean. No new technology - just smaller. It doesn't just work for buildings, it works for cars and other things too. This Formula 1 designer made an electric car that gets 350 MPG just by making it super light weight (more info).

I've brought up this idea to my professors and I usually get lukewarm feedback. Most buildings are formulaic. So many square feet per occupant, so much height, so many watts per square foot for lighting, etc. I'm told reinventing the wheel shouldn't be done, but in NYC or London people live in much smaller spaces because of the cost. I'm convinced that a good percentage of my generation would be willing to live in somewhat smaller places (say 10-25% smaller) in order to save money/work less/have more disposable income. Isn't that what our generation is all about? Less shit, more experiences.

But the Tata is proving otherwise. People do want more stuff. Bigger stuff. Nicer stuff. But this is also a country of poor people on the come up. Like most of our grandparents and great grandparents they didn't have anything growing up and now they want the Cadillac, their double quarter-pounder, and the swimming pool behind the mcmansion. Maybe we're different? Maybe not, if my brief stint on this planet has taught me anything it's that people are more similar than they are dissimilar.

As I always tell my friends who want me to build something. If we make it half the size we can make it twice as nice. Most have never thought of this. A big table from plywood can be cool but how about a coffee table made of black walnut instead? Consuming more doesn't mean consuming more. It means consuming quality, and that's what I want to build.


Denmark, Germany, and Europe in general is betting on a more pedestrian centric city by making it harder more expensive to own cars. It's a little hard to imagine if you haven't been there but the US is going the opposite direction which I think over time will prove to be the wrong decision.

I'm not a big fan of articles about how college is or is not worth the cost and time. It clearly is with some caveats. This article from the NYT does a great job of breaking it down. To put things into perspective:
[C]ollege tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.
Someone finally puts solar panels into window assemblies. (Hat tip: Hass)

Food label 1 & 2 design seems to be getting a lot of press lately. Problem - if I walked around the street right now and asked people very basic but entirely relevant questions about food labels/general nutritional knowledge most people, as in 80-90%, would utterly fail. Until people can somehow understand that there are three major sources of nutrition (carbohydrates/sugars/saccharides, fat/lipids, protein/amino acids) what does it matter if you show how many grams of fiber are in something? Conversely, when I visited Google in Palo Alto they have a simple and effective system. Everything gets a color: red is unhealthy, yellow is in between, and green in healthy. In a society where people think that lower taxes decreases debt levels I think that's more the level we need to be shooting for.

Backlog of Readings

Stuff White People Like - #34 - Architecture.

The secret world of Trader Joe's.

Short mockumentary on plastic bag migration.

Letter grades for vehicle efficiency.

HP hold The Navy hostage to the tune of 3.3 billion (3,300 millions).

Apparently Microsoft thinks it's a good idea to let people pirate their stuff because, you know, it increases your market share. In fact, they didn't let people pirate Vista and it hurt Microsoft somewhat badly, or perhaps no one wanted to steal such a terribly designed OS.

The Chinese envision a double decker bus with cars passing underneath.

Young, single, childless women earn more than men their same age. So further proof that the vast majority of the wage discrepancy is due to the fact that womens' priorities shift after having a child.

Scientists have built a computer program that suggests potential research hypothesis after doing a complete reading of the relevant literature. Pretty awesome.

Short - it's actually quite hard to tell if someone is drunk.

Sustainable building at

Sunday Reading

From the NYTimes: The Supreme Court is getting more conservative.

The Bush tax cuts of '01 and '03 are expiring and Republicans are vowing to extend them while Democrats plan to extend only the cuts to the middle class (under $200,000 a year per individual or $250,000 a year for a family, yea... middle class) and below - which only accounts for 95% of the country, but the Republicans are drawing the line in the sand. Surely a party that talks about balancing the budget AND keeping taxes low for the rich can be taken seriously.

An old article from Slate by Krugman on cornering commodities markets, in this case copper. This is in response to a British man doing the same now to cocoa - that is, chocolate.

Completely random: Clownfish change sex and stay small to form social hierarchies. Very short and utterly fascinating.

BP does some terrible photoshopping on "official images" of the oil spill clean up effort.

The DOT (Department of Transportation) is looking at creating water highways for barges to alleviate road traffic. Which is interesting because ships are the most efficient way of transporting large quantities of anything... but yet require so much resistance from water to move. I wonder if anyone has ever conceived of a barge sized train?

Machete, the spoof trailer from Grindhouse, is actually getting made. I'm excited. Here's the new trailer.


Hilarious Craigslist post.

Wind powered car
goes faster than the wind...

The National Academy of Sciences asked a few engineers how to reduce gas consumption in cars with available technology. Basically it costs money and hybrids still aren't viable.

This is a really good article about (theoretical) congestion pricing in NYC and how it would work. A Harvard math grad put together a spreadsheet detailing the negative externalities imposed by car drivers on the city; which is exactly what congestion pricing aims to do - give incentives to people to make choices that impose less costs on others.

Backlog of Links Part 1

Must read: the national debt clock runs out of zeros.

Must read: Nathan Mhyrivold (former chief tech officer at Microsoft) started an R&D group composed of chemists, chefs, and artists to produce... a cookbook - of scientific proportions.

Missle silo bachelor pad, must see.

3D fractal renderings (from Wired). I have some odd feeling that this is the distant future of architecture. Think about it... you could build an entire structure using the same mass produced piece, and accuracy would be nearly perfect.

Paul Krugman on why the Fed is powerless to do anything and shouldn't raise rates for a long time.

The Scots really do invent everything. There are actually a few I think they left off the list (for example the ghillie suite of WWI that snipers still use for camouflage to this day, the Scots used it to catch livestock poachers). I had been planning to write a whole long post about this, but apparently someone else has watched too much History Channel too and noticed that everything during the industrial revolution was invented by people from the poorest country in Europe.

A tour of the Leica factory... ugh. Anyone got $11,000 for one of those f .95 Noctilux lenses? They make one of the nicest 35 mm cameras and possibly the best glass (lenses) in the world.

New earthquake proofing technology in Istanbul looks impressive as hell.

Videos of rockets exploding during launch including a 1 billion dollar spy satellite.

Military Youtube... sort of. The military can record footage of an entire area, say a city, and if there's a bombing they can basically rewind the tape and see who planted the bomb...? Just read it.

Most sushi you eat isn't what it says it is. Many of the fish are from protected or over fished areas.

Interesting geodesic domes in California.

This has been a long time coming. Road trains. Safer, faster, more efficient.

Foreign Policy Magazine posted a collection of beautiful photos of slums.

Hahahaha, fuck Vista.

A movie gets pirated all over the internet, it's producers are ecstatic; finally.

This is mostly for my reference. Microscale chart... fun.

Wonkish developmental economics talk about the inability to explain growth in the third world - the drunkard's walk.

Scientists say waterboarding is bad... apparently people will tell you anything when they're being tortured.

Philosophical musings as to whether or not we exist.

Recession over - like 3 months ago.

Hilarious - dead salmon fools fMRI.

Plug and charge
, cool but... dumb. If it isn't cheaper than conventional energy, or somehow provides something that is more convenient then it won't work economically. Still interesting though.

Plants recognize and react differently to their siblings.

Nudge - how to make more people use the stairs. Psh, turn them into a piano obviously.

Someone finally won the Netflix Prize which was basically a million dollars given out to the team that could improve Netflix's own movie recommendation algorithm by more than 10%.

America's infrastructure is failing massively, not very surprising. Wired talks about the lack of any current "super projects" in the US and the America Society of Civil engineers say we need to spend 2.2 trillion dollars on infrastructure just to bring it up to par. Yikes... this is interesting to me because people don't realize how much these things affect everything. Roads, water, electricity - these are the basic things that allow America to have a strong economy. It's so basic it's painful.

Required Reading

Color-blind monkeys get gene therapy and are cured. That's insane. They did it by injecting a type of virus carrying a gene that essentially activates a protein that the monkeys are lacking in their cone cells. Wired and MIT.

Interesting video on tangible statistics. So fascinating...

More interesting food research by Brian Wansink. Short

More on high speed rail. It's so cool but just not cost effective for the most part. More on this later when I eventually talk about sunk cost fallacy.

Great article on entrepreneurs in Africa. Must read.

Cameras in London and cops driving around in cars in America are really expensive and both don't do ANYTHING to deter crime... (sarcasm) shocking (/sarcasm)!

Buzz Aldrin gives a Q&A on Freakonomics.

Well written piece about the future of cars, or rather; electric cars are taking over.

New Scientist puts out a list of 13 things in science that can't be explained. Here's round two.

Contact lenses that can monitor your bodily functions. They actually have a working model too.

Penn and Teller's show, Bullshit, covers The Bible. It's good but I wish they'd scream less and be a bit more objective. Then again, it's a show called bullshit.

Some college professors are giving money back to their students that they receive in royalties for required texts that they authored.

Some 9/11 Bush hate pieces. One by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture and excerpt of an article in The Atlantic (long) commented on by Chris Blattman (short), a professor of economics and political science at Yale who runs this insightful blog.

Finally, an explanation of why people who don't necessarily agree with Republican candidates vote Republican; they prefer their moral values and views on personal wealth. The strongest indicator? "Whether candidates view themselves as 'better than normal' human beings because of their wealth."

Think the Tevatron (ever notice that just about everything cool was either invented in Chicago [skyscraper] or resides near Chicago?) or Large Hadron Collider is huge? The US was planning one back in the 90's that was over twice as big as the LHC and actually started construction. Here's a photo gallery and story about what remains - yeah I'd totally live there. Here's a piece from Wired about how Fermi Lab's Tevatron is working around the clock to churn out ground breaking research before the LHC comes online.

A company has found a way to detect autism in children much earlier - 2 years old instead of the usual 5 to 6.

A university professor lands in jail for sharing research with Chinese graduate students... really? And apparently The State Department classifies satellites as munitions so that some cutting edge research done on them is considered classified. Short.

A 48 pound genetically engineered rainbow trout was caught in Canada. Just go look at the photo.

The highest resolution photo of Andromeda ever taken can be seen here. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away and is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy.

If This Were a News Blog...

The first 80% of the show would all be about unemployment, the depression we're denying we're in, and in general what went wrong. If you have any desire to read stuff like that then check out this Q&A with Richard Posner on Freakonomics. It's semi-easy to understand and spot on.

I guess number two on the list would be global warming (which should really be retitled global climate change). Here's a TED talk about cleaning the air with an incredibly easy to implement solution involving house plants.

Then probably a story about hybrid cars even though they aren't very viable. This is from GOOD Magazine and outlines cars and technologies you can actually buy now or in the near future.

And then they'd finish it off with a homicide story even though murder rates have been falling since the dawn of man. This is a TED talk by Steven Pinker.