Weekend Reading

A single room home that was designed as temporary housing after the Great Chicago Fire (The Great Chicago Fire).

"Real estate and religion: The tale of Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist" (WBEZ).

The relationship between GDP and energy use (reddit - Data is Beautiful).

"Americans Have No Idea How The Government Spends Money" (Washington Post). 

"Genes don't just influence your IQ—they determine how well you do in school" (AAAS).

Bill Gates weighs in on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Linkedin).

A reddit user (/u/minerva330) provides a brief overview of the current research regarding multivitamin use (reddit). In short, there's no proven benefit with the possible exception of vitamin D (yes, this is facile). The pace of scientific breakthroughs has been a great pleasure to watch in recent years and I look forward to seeing where our understanding of the minutia of nutrition takes us, but it will most likely be quite a while. Pulling apart the various effects of each vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, etc. is extremely difficult because there are so many interactions/variables to control and account for. For every study that claims one effect there is almost always another that shows the complete opposite.

"Characterization of Adults With a Self-Diagnosis of Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity" (NCGS) (Journal - Nutrition in Clinical Practice). The study hints that gluten sensitivity in non-celiac people likely doesn't  exist - or rather that only about 1 in 4 people reporting having NCGS show symptoms. Related: the author who originally published findings showing that NCGS exists has published work that counters their original claim saying that another class of unrelated molecules, that are commonly found in food, are actually responsible (NCBI).

US unions are shrinking (Vox).

"Momento Mori" (Ride Like You Mean It). A short well written piece on motorcycle accidents.


Walnut Credenza

A few years ago I got a call from my friend, Dan Mouradian, after I posted my walnut entry table to this blog. Dan is the kind of person that buys the obscure thing mentioned in  conversation while talking about Buckminster Fuller. The next week you get a call and are invited over to help build/play with said object, so it was clear to me then that we'd be collaborating at some point. We finally started in earnest at the beginning of the year and this is the result.

Photo: Dan Mouradian

Photo: Dan Mouradian

The credenza's dimensions are 9'-1" (2770mm) long, 2'-6" (760mm) high, and 1'-4" (410mm) deep. It sits below the TV and aligns with the verticals of the woodwork behind it. The credenza houses all of the TV's peripherals and the mesh front allows signals from remotes to pass through without interference. A single touch of the front panel and it raises up under its own power; fancy. The shell is solid black walnut (8/4; eight quarters or just under 2"), the plywood shelves are walnut veneer, the hardware is made by Blum, the front panel is poplar painted black covered in speaker mesh, the legs are custom milled aluminum, and the finish is rag applied tung oil. I'm not sure how much it weighs, but it takes two strong people to lift it.

The largest constraint of this piece was its length. It's both not easy to find 10' long quality hardwood and it's exponentially more difficult to work with large pieces. To that end, whenever a design makes it all the way to tangibility it's helpful to look back and see how reality affected the as-built design, so that's largely what this post will be about.

Drawing: Dan Mouradian

Pictured above is the drawing that Dan gave me. The majority of what's shown is true to the finished piece of furniture. The outside shell is joined using dominos (a miraculous machine made by Festool) and the veneered plywood shelves are routed into the shell and each other and the exposed plywood edges are covered with solid walnut and set back slightly.

The box/finger joints at the top corners were omitted. To make them we would have had to stand the table top up on the table saw which would mean we'd need roughly 12'+ clear  ceilings (double height spaces, always a good idea). That and said jig would need to be intense. We decided to devote our efforts elsewhere. To add to this, each piece that makes up the shell would have had to be about 4" longer to account for the box/finger joints. Getting large enough pieces was already difficult.

Credenza drawings.

Change #2 is the omission of the middle legs. The shell acts as a kind of quasi-beam, so the middle legs are unnecessary. Aluminum was chosen mostly for aesthetics, but it's also easier to machine.

Cut sheet.

The cut sheet lists all the pieces that are needed to build the final piece, how much material is needed, and how the pieces are to be fabricated. I didn't put enough effort into making this understandable for people beyond myself, so it didn't end up being that useful. Next time this should be a full sheet all scaled the same size so that it can be used in the shop.

Owl Lumber.

Dan ended up having to go to their regional warehouse to find 8/4 walnut that was long enough (9'+). If pieces couldn't be obtained in that length we would have had to join shorter pieces and glue them up. More work, more waste, and busier aesthetic.

Raw lumber.

Planing, jointing, and ripping to size. Squaring up raw material is a large part of woodworking, and it's hard work. This is at the Chicago School of Woodworking in Lincoln Square.

You can never have too many clamps.

Aluminum leg drawings. 

The mechanical connection is made via a threaded insert and piece of threaded rod. The design allows the legs to be unscrewed repeatedly without damaging the wood. The shoulder in the leg distributes the weight more evenly.

Photo: Brian Kristmann

This is one of the legs in a CNC lathe. Apparently the lathe didn't like the proportions. If we were to make it again I'd have to make it a bit thicker or decrease the length (I think?). Brian made the last aluminum legs I used to make a table. By comparison these legs were much quicker (cheaper) to make, easier to attach, and can be removed. Although the rectangular ones do look nice.

Thanks to Dan for including me in the project, and Brian and his father for entertaining my small projects.

Photo: Dan Mouradian

Take Your Pleasures Seriously - Filtered Pour Over Coffee

The title is a quote from Charles Eames.

This is my go to filtered coffee prep process. It may seem overly complex but once you've done it a few times it's easy enough and produces repeatable results; which is the whole point. All the equipment I use is listed at the end of this post.


First, weight the beans. I use 1g of coffee beans to 15g water. My 16-ounce thermos holds ≈ 500g of water so I use 33g of beans (500/15 ≈ 33). Experiment to your liking.

Heat up your water. You want it to be about 205° F (96° C). Just let your kettle sit for a minute or two after it boils/turns off to let it cool down. I also like to preheat the thermos and mugs by pouring some hot water in them early on.

Grind your coffee beans finely. This is one of the variables you'll have to experiment with. Too fine and it will taste over extracted and acrid, too coarse and it will be watery. The best test I've found is to rub the coffee grounds between your fingers. If the grounds easily sit between your fingerprints it's too fine. You want it just a tad more coarse than that. If you have a good burr grinder your grind should be pretty consistent. If you see a large variance in grounds something is wrong.

Fold the flap on the filter, put it in the dripper, wet it with hot water, let it drain, and pour in the grounds.

Pour in 50g of water into the center of the grounds. You want it to saturate the grounds and not run past them. I've started to mix the water and grounds with a spoon. I feel like I get more consistent results doing it that way, but maybe I'm just adding a step for no real reason. Oh well, I could be wrong about worse. Wait about 30-45 seconds.

Pour slowly into the center of the grounds. Hario makes a special pouring kettle that makes this part easier but I already own lots of stuff. The trick to pour over coffee prep is to form a thin coat of grounds on the walls of the filter and then pour water through it without disturbing the grounds too much, so everything after this is a bit subjective. Once the water is about two-thirds of the way up the sides stop pouring. Keep adding water until you hit (in my case) 500g, and be careful not to go over the original line of grounds set in your first pour. The whole process should take three minutes. Pouring directly into the center, swirling it slightly, and how fast you pour will have an effect on the taste. Experiment to your liking.

If you really want to get nerdy you can geek out about the type of mugs you use like these 6-ounce Victor mugs that were once made by the same company that made the ceramic insulators at the top of telephone poles.

Coffee Equipment:

Good coffee (Intelligentsia House Blend) - Intelligentsia sells their coffee for $2 off on Tuesdays in Chicago and Stanley's on North & Elston has it cheaper than anywhere else. There are some other good roasters in Chicago like Big Shoulders but thus far Intelligentsia is my clear favorite.

Grinder (Hario Mini Mill Burr Grinder)(Similar alternative) - good electric burr grinders are expensive. I've used this guy and really liked it but even that's $130.

A thermos (16-oz Thermos) - so good I own two.

Electric hot water kettle (I use a utiliTea Electric Kettle but this Hario electric kettle would work better). You can probably pick up something like this at Target for $30. 

Pour over coffee dripper (Hario V60, Hario also makes a ceramic version) and filter (Hario 02, they also makes a brown version which costs more for some reason) - I like the plastic version as it's more tolerant of my hubris.

Digital scale (OXO 10lb5 lb) - good for mailing packages and making repeatable recipes like hummus and fancy drinks. The screen on mine pulls out so you can put large bowls on top of it. I use this much more than I thought I would. Not accurate enough for drugs so hold your comments children.

For more coffee gear suggestions check out reddit/r/coffee's list.

Weekend Links

A concise and well referenced history of Israel (reddit/r/AskHistorians). /r/AskHistorians is hands down the most well curated sub on reddit and worth visiting independent of reddit itself.

An architecture student "beat" SimCity (Vice).

Hip hop artists ranked by the size of their vocabulary (mdaniels).

The death of expertise (thefederalist).

Increasing your wealth tends to make individuals less egalitarian and more right wing (Warwick University)(PDF link to academic paper).

One of my professors from IIT, John DeSalvo, just published another book. He does all the sketches by hand (W.W. Norton Publishers).

One of my structural professors from IIT, Paul Endres, is being recognized for some unique work he did on a private home in Big Sur (Architectural Record, he's on the cover of the print version).

Webcomic author and illustrator Allie Brosh created a comic about her depression. Many psychologists find it to be one of the clearest descriptions of depression that exists (The Globe and Mail).

SpaceX had it's first soft landing (in an ocean but whichever). Sending cargo into space is expensive - like $10,000/pound (16,000  /kg). About 70% of that cost is the rockets themselves which are only used once before they hurdle backs towards earth either burning up in the atmosphere or slamming into the crust (Wired).

Paul Krugman explains how the United States is becoming an oligarchy. He also plugs Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. It's a 700-page tome, but (and mark my words) this book is on the level of General Theory of Employment, The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, etc. You will more than likely never read it but you will know quotes from it.

More on Capital in the Twenty-First Century from author Thomas Piketty and several Nobel laureates.

Quick Note - There Is No Skills Gap

I've pointed out previously that there are many jobs where employers say there's a skills gap. "I want to hire someone but there's just no one out there with the skills I need!" This is BS. There isn't a skills gap, there's a what we're willing to pay you gap. I'm helping my firm find a new hire so now I'm experiencing this first hand.

In the Chicago architecture job market there's a shortage of people who know how to use Revit (pencils are to AutoCAD as AutoCAD is to Revit). My firm wants to hire someone who knows how to use this software, but so is every other firm. Revit is a deep program that takes a long time to learn and it isn't typically taught in schools. Hence, the salaries for these people has gone up. We can't find someone at a salary level we can afford but instead of admitting to that they say no one knows how to use the software.


[Meta] Why I Haven't Been Writing, or at Least Posting What I Write

Meta: self referential

January was the first month in six years that I didn't post to my blog. I've been meaning to write about my lack of posting for over a year now, but I myself didn't have an explanation. It's certainly not for a lack of ideas or even time. The answer is my opinions regarding media have changed.

It used to be that there wasn't enough good content to consume. Books, movies, the library, etc. Sure, you could find enough sources to keep yourself occupied, but the quality was lacking. This was true even with the rise of the internet, but there still wasn't enough high quality content unless you really sought it out. Seeking is its own behavior separate but connected to the consumption of it (a topic for another time). For me the change was reddit. I've discussed reddit here before but to summarize, it essentially provides unlimited high quality content once you've figured out how to tailor it to your interests. The limiting factor is now the time we're willing to dedicate to consumption. In my case this is somewhere near addiction levels.

In 2010 Eric Schmidt (Google Exec.) stated that we produce more content in two days than all of humanity did before 2003. Most topics I'd like to discuss have already been written about and debated at length. To that end I've been wary of posting content that isn't fully researched, somewhat unique, or is just plain not fun to read. In short, more signal less noise.

Sunday Links

"The Last Question" is a short story by Isaac Asimov. Of all that he wrote this was his favorite.

Over the counter dietary supplements are increasingly hurting and even killing people. Epicures beware. It's mostly livers, and to be fair the numbers are relatively small. (NYT)

Peter Zumthor on presence in architecture. (ArchDaily)

It's official, the only way to make money on the internet other than selling physical goods and Nigerian scams is to gather vast amounts of information on users. 23andMe is doing just that. Plot twist: one of the founders is married to Google founder Sergey Brin. (Scientific American)

The NYTimes analyzed Facebook profiles and Google search data to quantify who openly says they're gay versus how many people are still in the closet. There are still parts of the US where large amounts of people are in the closet - surprising and sad. (NYT)

DNA is only half the picture. There's a whole other layer of information underneath. (University of Washington)

This is now a trend (I've written about this before) - residential solar power is disruptive to utilities. You pay your power company for actual power consumed, not the distribution of power (the grid). A home with photovoltaics (PV) pushes its excess power onto the grid when the sun is shining and consumes electricity when from the grid when it isn't. Basically, homes with PV need the grid (battery systems are expensive), but that's not traditionally how the power company gets paid. It seems like an easy fix but no one's figured it out yet. So solar is now viable but we can't figure out who will pay for the grid, so several states have shut down programs to encourage or even allow solar panels on homes. (Scientific American)

President Obama gave a very good and straight forward speech about inequality. The mostly nonpolitical part where he explains the problems (with lots of numbers) is between about 2:15 about 20:00. Krugman explains why this is a big deal. (Krugman, NYT)

The difference between empathy and sympathy. (Hat tip Chris Dilts)

Logical errors.

What's With All Those Crazy Houses in Japan?

Small House in Tokyo by Sejima.

If you're the type who regularly visits architecture blogs you're probably aware of the seemingly endless stream of whimsical homes coming out of Japan. They tend to be compact; modern; stark; and often defy safety/code, and unlike the US the primary clients are middle class. So what's the deal? Why are people in Japan so willing to give architects such a free hand?

House in Yamasaki by Tato Architects.

In Japan wooden homes are depreciated over a 20 year period and on average are demolished after just 30 years. The whole list can be found here; steel reinforced concrete building have the longest depreciation at 47 years. 87% of home sales in Japan are new homes compared to 11-34% in most western countries. This costs Japan about 4% of it's GDP annually, so why do they do it?

After WWII there was a shortage of housing in Japan and the world in general that led to the construction of many poorly and cheaply built homes*. As they aged it was simpler to tear them down than it was to rehab them. At the same time land prices skyrocketed. When the value of land goes up the type of building that can justifiably be built on a site changes - more homes were razed. In the 1980's an asset bubble in land prices brought  government controls and rules regarding the steep depreciation of buildings**. All of this culminated in the current system of essentially disposable homes.

So how does this lead to such experimentation? Taking risks with the design can be a bad investment in the US because banks will rarely finance the construction of a radical design. Since most homes are purchased through a mortgage, the bank owns the home and they won't approve something they can't readily sell. Almost no one buys a "used" home in Japan so the homeowner and architect can design whatever they want. It doesn't affect the bank since they can't resell it anyways. Hence...

Also worth checking out is how these homes are built - largely automated gigantic CNC mills run by CAD/CAM.

Long Tall House by SPACESPACE. Notice the lack of railing.

As wasteful as this practice may sound to a westerner it's just normal in Japan. It makes one wonder which of our norms may be just as arbitrary. 

* Most of this info is from this Arch Daily article.

** Japan's Lost Decade, yes that's facile but if you're interested Paul Krugman wrote a great book about it called The Return of Depression Economics).