Willful Amnesia - Part I: Gasoline

One of the most tired utterances I often hear sounds something like 'well of course the cost of energy will be greater in the future' and everyone in attendance nods in agreement. But the sentiment doesn't align with reality, and in fact the price of energy has remained remarkably constant (more sources) over the last century or so, so why do people feel this way, especially in regards to gasoline?

First, people have difficulty implementing the concept of inflation, a.k.a. money illusion, into their day to day lives and instead tend to focus on numbers instead of purchasing power. That is, what their money can actually buy. It's one of those truly boring problems with large effects. Gas was $2.50 when I started driving in 2000 but I'd need to spend $3.40 in 2015 dollars to equal $2.50 in 2000 dollars. If prices were $3.40 today my knee jerk reaction is to say that prices went up and it's tempting to do so, but it's just not true. The most common example of this I hear is home prices 'we bought it for $70,000 30 years ago'. 

To those who are suspicious of inflation you'll hear that the price of energy isn't counted in the CPI (the consumer price index, the measure used to track inflation), and that's true. The reason it isn't included in the data is because the price of energy is volatile. Basically, the CPI would cease to be a useful measure. Krugman has a great explanation of this, and if we look at a graph over time we see that the price of energy really just oscillates around the general trend line.

Last up is loss aversion (seminal study from Khaneman). To offset the feeling we get from losing/spending something we need about 1.5-3 times the gain to make up for it, so if you drop $20 on the ground you'd need to find $30-$50 to cancel out the feeling you get from losing the $20. The fact that we purchase gasoline more regularly than some larger expenses also doesn't help. Spending $40/week is more painful mentally than spending large sums of money more infrequently. This could be a whole post on its own but suffice it to say for now that this insight explains a vast array of irrational human behavior.

The reason I writing about this now is because gasoline prices are almost half of what I'm used to at roughly $2.50/gallon (€0.58/liter) here in Chicago. While people like cheap prices it doesn't, in human minds, make up for when gasoline is $4.50/gallon. Next time gasoline prices spike people are going to complain about how energy prices are always going up and we'll have a sense of collective amnesia all over again, so while prices are low I'd like to point it out because as previously discussed, we tend to discount these periods.

The real question here, which I'd like to talk about soon, is qualitative. Are low gas prices net positive or net negative for society? I'd wager that many individuals are making some poor long term decisions during this windfall, and of course SUV and auto sales are up.

Why Does Attendance at Some CPS Schools Go Up At the End of Every Month?

Recently the public schools in Chicago were closed because of a cold spell. My wife works for CPS (Chicago Public Schools) so she had a few days off, but not so for all CPS workers. The cafeteria staff have to show up since so many of the children depend on the breakfast and lunch served at school for their meals - if you can call it that. As I asked more about this she told me that at one school (she travels to multiple schools because she's a speech pathologist) the principal has noticed and started tracking data on a surge in attendance that occurs on the last week of every month. Odd, why would that be?

Ostensibly, the families of her students are running out of food at the end of every month. If their children don't come to school they don't have enough to eat. In 2009 SNAP benefits, more commonly know as food stamps, were temporarily increased by about 13% as part of the ARRA (American Recovery Reinvestment Act). Those benefits expired at the end of 2013. Food is such an issue for many of these families that most of the kids aren't allowed to have play dates because the host family can't afford to feed a visiting child.

I don't want to make this too political - if you can call feeding people political - but what the hell? We produce more food per capita than any other country on the planet. What's the point of everything else we do if people's basic needs aren't met? There's a plethora of studies linking food insecurity to poor school performance, increased crime, decreased health, etc. This is literally step one of preventing citizens from falling through the cracks, and instead of stepping up our efforts we're cutting benefits.

  • The average gross income (pre-tax money) for a family on food stamps is $731 per month (how do people, let alone families, survive on that?).
  • About 3/4 of households on food stamps have children in them.
  • Food stamps cost about $29 billion in 2005. That cost increased to over $76 billion (2.5% of the federal budget) in 2013 due to the Great Recession.
  • 48 million Americans, about 1 in 6, are on food stamps.
  • The average benefit is about $133 per month per person or $1.40 per person per meal.
  • Food stamps benefits have been cut repeatedly since 2013
  • As measured by economic multiplier (the ability of spending money to generate more economic activity), food stamps are the most effective of any social program. $1 spent on food stamps generates about $1.80 worth of economic activity.

Weekend Reading

A redditor explains why they don't think Bill Gates's proclamation that "people don't realize how many jobs will soon be replaced by software bots" is accurate. (reddit/r/technology)

An interview with Chicago photographer Ron Gordon who I TA'd for at IIT. (The Comp Magazine)

What happens when you introduce a child to gaming by only showing the games/consoles as they came out historically? (Medium)

An Uber for experiements. (The Economist)

Pope Francis and the GOP's Bad Science. (The New Yorker)

Salad vending machines in Chicago. (The Atlantic)

19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire (long). (Outside via Longform)

An interesting story about the world's preeminent psilocybin mycologist (long). (Harpers via Longform)

Steve Albini on the state of the music industry (The Guardian):

Imagine a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by, however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day. That’s what the internet has become for music fans. Plus bleacher seats for a cheering section.


While walking around our neighborhood my wife and I noticed a coach house; not an uncommon sight in Chicago. Coach houses no longer provide shelter for horses and carriages and have mostly been renovated into either garages or living spaces, but it brought up an interesting question. What other physical objects or parts of our environment are obsolete but have been repurposed because of their embodied cost, and what other objects do we commonly see today that will be obsolete soon but are expensive or permanent enough that they will need to be repurposed?

Being an (intern) architect the obvious answer is buildings. They're the most expensive thing, very permanent, and get repurposed continually but that's been going on since buildings have been built. The most recent widely adopted answer is smart phones. They have largely replaced calculators, GPS, maps, watches, address books, social interaction, etc. They've also created things that most of us couldn't have imagined just a decade ago, but none of these tangible items are objects of any significant permanence - old GPS units aren't going to be crowding us out of urban centers. My answer is parking lots.

It's always bothered me (oh the things that trouble me) that vast amounts of capital sits idle for much of its useful life. If we could put it to use more often it would raise the quality of life for all of us. The majority of cars sit idle 20-something hours a day, most people's homes are empty while they're at work or on vacation, offices (outside of architecture anyways) are empty at night, my computer doesn't run at full load continuously, most of the tools I own go unused 99% of the time - the list goes on. Cue the sharing economy.

People can rent out parts of their homes, Uber and Lyft make use of idle vehicles, zip car does it with a different business model, and cloud computing places processing burden on machines that run near full capacity continuously. There will always be inefficiencies, but the gain of even a few percentage points can free up billions of dollars worth of wealth to the benefit of all - assuming the powers that be don't hoard it all for themselves; that's another question though.

I think we can safely say that autonomous cars will soon be a reality. Tesla just released a car that has impressive autonomous features and the self driving Google cars keep getting better. This combined with the quick adoption of Uber seems to spell out a clear endgame. I have no idea when, but at some point in the not so distant future few if any of us will own cars. They'll be autonomous; rented, borrowed, or subscribed to; we will get places quicker; car accidents will be greatly reduced; roads will change; traffic will largely cease to exist; car insurance premiums will decline; police departments will have to find a new source of revenue; and parking lots will stop being built because cars won't need to sit idly (sort of, they'll need a place to charge at 3AM).

This will free up valuable real estate in urban areas, but how this could affect the suburbs is less clear. Certain typologies like strip malls and shopping centers rely on parking to create a sort of interstitial border. The mat to the artwork if you will (don't take that analogy too far). You can't just place infill there as it'd obscure the duck (branding of the businesses that occupy the buildings).

The whole situation is a reminder that our built environment is a reflection of our current level of technology. Advances like smart phones and the internet often get dismissed as some novel curiosity, but the reality is that such technology can be transformative. In this case some mostly intangible items like clever programming, sensors, and machine learning (to greatly oversimplify) will replace thousands of square miles of physical asphalt and concrete. It will reduce water runoff caused by hardscapes, the urban heat island effect will be reduced, the load on sewage treatment plants will be reduced in areas with a combined sewer system, urban areas can become more dense which means shorter commutes, and in turn a virtuous cycle of energy reduction will begin as less energy is needed for all the aforementioned activities. That and less parking lots. No one likes parking lots.

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.